The white-handed gibbons get your attention first. Still in the parking lot, you can hear the cheerful, high-pitched whooping that signals … what exactly? Feeding time? A game of chase is about to begin? Whatever it is, it sounds happy.
Two gloriously iridescent peacocks are strolling near the entrance, pretending not to notice you marveling at their brilliant plumage. Birds are chirping, kids are giggling and you haven’t even reached the front gate.
Welcome to the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo, where the usual and unusual converge in a 10-acre embrace of animal appreciation. Situated in north Gainesville just four traffic lights east of Interstate 75 off Exit 390 and seemingly a million miles from the hustle of this vibrant college town’s hopping heart, this is where Santa Fe College’s more than 200 Zoo Animal Technology Program students bring classroom lessons to life.
Open seven days a week, the zoo is comfortable enough that visitors meandering along its quarter-mile of shaded, foot-friendly sawdust and mulch pathways can stop and soak in the sights and sounds without blocking others or being carried along by a sea of humanity.
More than 75 native and exotic creatures — including ocelots, springboks, a kookaburra, squirrel monkeys, barking deer and Perdido Key beach mice — call it home. Their squawks, calls and whoops ring through the tall trees, turning the dull hum of the nearby interstate into soothing background noise.
The zoo’s allure is its coziness. The animals are mere feet away from visitors in a clean environment, meticulously cared for by the students who buzz around in their hunter green shirts, more than happy to share their knowledge and love of critters great and small.
Derek and Lindsey Hickman of Gainesville take their 21-month-old son Darren to the zoo almost every weekend. They come so often, they said, Darren already is identifying and remembering specific animals.
“We’ve been to zoos in Tampa and Jacksonville, but they’re more like theme parks,’’ Lindsey Hickman said. “The animals are too far away to see.’’
She especially likes the zoo’s picnic tables, playground equipment – and its shade trees.
“We have a moms’ group that gets together for birthdays and play dates here,’’ she said.
Alyx Maederer, 19, in her second semester at SFC, described how attached the students get to the zoo and the inhabitants.
“We’re here 365 days a year taking care of the animals,’’ she said. The zoo is only closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but the students are always here. “The animals have to eat, even on the holidays,’’ she noted.
Austin Hemdy of Gainesville by way of New Zealand was explaining the plodding Galapagos tortoises to his 16-month-old daughter Lucy. He’s been to the bigger zoos, too, and prefers Santa Fe’s homey feel as well as the educational opportunities.
“It’s not just a tourist attraction, it’s a place of learning,’’ Hemdy said.
The zoo doesn’t have a restaurant or café but daytrippers can head in any direction and find interesting eateries for lunch. If you’re up for a specialty pizza or calzone – with a side of funky artwork, unique salads and a laid-back college vibe – head east to Satchel’s Pizza.
A couple of caveats: Satchel’s is not open on Sundays, is cash only (they have an ATM), parking is a challenge and the wait is so long at times that it has inspired a local bumper sticker: “Sorry I’m late, I was at Satchel’s.”
But the food and ambience are worth the wait. And your trip must include a stop at Lightnin’ Salvage, a junk museum, five-and-dime, art gallery and lounge rolled into one. Where else can you dine inside an old hippie van, then visit a gift shop where all the simple toys from a bygone era somehow have been resurrected?
After lunch, if you have kids in tow, swing down to NW 8th Avenue between 34th and 22nd streets and check out the Gainesville Solar Walk. This 4 billion-to-1 scale model uses obelisk-like monuments to show the distances between the sun and the planets of our solar system. Better yet, park at the adjacent Westside Recreation Center and walk off your lunch along the educational astronomical mile before heading to your next stop: The Butterfly Rainforest.
Located inside the Florida Museum of Natural History on the University of Florida campus, the Butterfly Rainforest offers visitors an afternoon of mystical serenity.
After taking in the museum’s mastodon skeleton, shark jaws large enough to inhale a Volkswagen and ancient dugout canoes, you step inside a world that is a feast for the senses – and a photographer’s paradise.
The explosion of color keeps your head on a swivel as the silent wonders live up to the exhibit’s slogan: “Where science takes flight.”
With such whimsical names as Small Postman, Fiery Skipper, Scarlet Peacock and Chocolate Pansy, hundreds of butterflies flit among the lush tropical landscape, almost daring you not to smile.
Small waterfalls add a musical background to the perfumed air. Benches along the curved, wheelchair-friendly walkway beckon visitors to sit and take in the constant motion swirling around them or to simply open a book or meditate. If you’re still enough, you may become part of the exhibit as the butterflies tend to alight on arms, heads and books.
Pick up a laminated photo guide to the rainforest and try to identify the performers. Is that a Grecian Shoemaker? Maybe a Zebra Longwing, or a Tropical Blue Wave?
As you head back into the real world you wonder just how you can maintain the sense of peace these delicate exhibitionists just imparted.
IF YOU GO
WHERE: 3000 N.W. 83rd St., Gainesville
WHERE: 1800 NE 23rd Ave., Gainesville
WHERE: Museum of Florida History, 3201 Hull Road, Gainesville
CONTACT: Call 352-392-1721