New England

Animal Close-Ups | Best 5

Where in New England can you experience close encounters of the furry and feathered kind? Here are 5 of our favorite animal experiences.

By Kim Knox Beckius

Aug 04 2016

Falconry_Best5

Nancy Cowan of the New Hampshire School of Falconry in Deering.

Photo Credit : Kyle Holmquist
Nancy Cowan of the New Hampshire School of Falconry in Deering.
Nancy Cowan of the New Hampshire School of Falconry in Deering.
Photo Credit : Kyle Holmquist

Pet lovers know: Animals are as individual as humans. Whale trainers, wolf handlers, and zookeepers recognize this, too. As master falconer Nancy Cowan asserts, “Every single bird is different; they all have their own personalities. Think about how infinite it is.” The rare opportunity to engage with wild beasts—to lock eyes, witness behaviors, and glimpse something of ourselves—makes these New England animal encounters life-changing for participants.

Beluga Tales

When you shimmy out of waders after your in-tank beluga experience at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, your clothes remain dry, but you’re not the same person inside. How could you be after gliding your fingers over a whale’s powerful tail, peeking into its blow hole, tickling the roof of its mouth to elicit a high-pitched “squee,” or maybe even patting its tongue—a curious technique that trainers like Kathryn Justice use to bond with these graceful creatures. Participants (who must be at least 5 feet tall) undergo a “heartwarming” transformation between orientation and debriefing, she says: They’re profoundly moved and committed to everyday actions that protect belugas in the wild. Interactive sessions are enriching for these intelligent mammals, too. “They get bored if they’re not challenged,” Justice explains. That’s why, in 2014, “Paint with a Whale” was added to the aquarium’s line-up. You choose colors and hold the canvas; your whale partner grips a brush in its teeth. The results are remarkably divergent, even though the belugas were all trained to paint the same way. Mystic, Connecticut. 860-572-5955; mysticaquarium.org/animals-and-exhibits/encounter-programs

Giraffe Nibbles

You hope for the best, as you extend a leafy branch. “There’s no way we can force an 18-foot-tall giraffe to do anything,” says Dr. Jeremy Goodman, executive director of Providence’s Roger Williams Park Zoo and driver of last year’s decision to make giraffe feedings an affordable daily activity for “the masses.” Even adults “turn into little kids,” as a massive head lowers and an 18-inch tongue juts out to snatch a leaf. When you’re face to face with one of the four giants of the herd, you appreciate nature’s creativity anew. Goodman says that’s the goal: “giving people magical moments and connecting them with a real, living, beautiful creature.” It’s a thrill that’s generated 99.99 percent positive feedback, return visits, and social-media posts galore. Providence, Rhode Island. 401-785-3510; rwpzoo.org/415/animal-feedings

Howl with the Pack

Wolves don’t howl at the moon; their vocalizations are a form of familial bonding and communication. And yes, you can join the chorus during weekend presentations at Wolf Hollow in Ipswich, Massachusetts, featuring a pack of seven pure wolves and one wolf-dog. Adults may also arrange for private photographer’s sessions on weekdays. When Joni Soffron and her late husband, Paul, introduced five pups to the public in 1990, they were determined to help these maligned apex predators shake their bad rap. Their son, Zee, says, “We’re trying to take the fear and misunderstanding away.” Visitors gain remarkable appreciation for pack dynamics. “We learn how to be human by watching wolf packs,” he says. “They’ll fight to the death for their pups. They mate for life. In some ways, they do better than we do.” Ipswich, Massachusetts. 978-356-0216; wolfhollowipswich.org

Into the Wild

Native animals wind up permanent residents of the Maine Wildlife Park when they can’t survive reintroduction. For moose, what’s often at issue is how friendly they’ve become through human interaction. Professionals and amateurs who reserve a park Photo Admission Pass, which provides escorted access inside enclosures for unobstructed shots, sometimes find shooting the four moose—the most in park history—pretty tricky. “They’ll put their noses right on your lens,” park superintendent Curt Johnson laughs. But “most people want the experience,” he says, “even more than the photography.” Pass holders may also photograph a beaver, bears, bald eagle, white-tailed deer, a bobcat, Canada lynx, and cougars, plus rare albino individuals and the latest infant arrivals. Gray, Maine. 207-657-4977; maine.gov/ifw/education/wildlifepark

Soar with a Falcon

Thrust one arm out, and bam! There’s a Harris’s hawk eating out of your hand. And you’re glad it all happened so fast that you never quite realized what foodstuff it was that New Hampshire master falconer Nancy Cowan tucked into your heavy glove. This wildlife rehabilitator, author of Peregrine Spring, has turned what began as her husband’s hobby into one of the world’s few licensed falconry schools. The falconer’s task, like his or her tools, has changed little in four millennia: “Set things up, so the wild instinct comes to the bird.” Introductory classes are exhilaratingly hands-on. When you drop your arm to fly a hawk, it’s hard to contain your awe as his wings unfold and he soars… alights … waits … stares. By now, you don’t care that it’s feathered chicken feet for dinner. You want to feel that wildness, that power again—the untamed teamwork of bird and human. Deering, New Hampshire. 603-464-6213; nhschooloffalconry.com