Exhibits gone wild at nation's zoos

Along with the expected lions, tigers and bears, visitors to zoos this summer may encounter more unusual creatures like dragons, mammoths and the Micronesian kingfisher.

Those are some of the stars in exhibits opening at the nation's zoos. Despite dicey weather in much of the country, attendance at zoos and aquariums was up during the first quarter of 2009, probably the result of a sagging economy that has families looking for close-to-home entertainment with multi-generational appeal.

Among new wildlife exhibits:

•It's called Elephant Odyssey, but the San Diego Zoo's newest feature, opening Saturday, also spotlights prehistoric creatures, such as mammoths and lions, that once roamed Southern California. The extinct animals (life-size replicas) and the zoo's seven elephants (the real deal), along with 30 or so other species, occupy a new $44 million, 7.5-acre facility. Other features include a fossil dig. 619-231-1515; elephantodyssey.com.

•Leapin' Lizards! The Indianapolis Zoo's Dragons of Komodo exhibits two of the world's largest of the species, on loan from the Denver Zoo. They take up guest quarters Saturday through Sept. 7. 317-630-2001; indianpoliszoo.com.

•The National Aviary in Pittsburgh unveils a new exhibit with 11 African penguins Saturday. The $1.8 million Penguin Point features underwater and close-up views of the birds' nesting grounds. The aviary is home to 800 birds of about 200 species. 412-323-7235; aviary.org.

•Tiger Trek, opening today at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kan., features two Malayan tigers and two Amur tigers, along with red pandas and Burmese brown antlered deer. Visitors can watch trainers work with the tigers. 316-660-9453; scz.org.

•The Philadelphia Zoo's McNeil Avian Center opens May 30, replacing the facility's original 1916 birdhouse, which closed in 2007. The new walk-through aviary is home to 120 birds; some of them, like the Micronesian kingfisher, are extinct in the wild.

•The Fort Wayne (Ind.) Children's Zoo presents an immersive experience with its African Journey exhibit opening June 6. A 2-inch-thick glass wall allows visitors to come nose to nose with Bill and Ina, the resident lions. A Savannah trail harbors dik diks, hyenas and vultures. And a renovated giraffe exhibit allows visitors to hand-feed the five giraffes from a 14-foot platform. 260-427-6800; kidszoo.org.

•A piece of Africa takes shape in America's heartland June 6 with the opening of Africa! at the Peoria (Ill.) Zoo. A boardwalk winds through a re-created Zambezi River village with views of white rhinos, Grevy's zebras, lions, giraffes and Thomson's gazelles. 309-686-3365; peoriazoo.org.

•The Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley opens a $1 million, nature-based playground July 11. Aimed at ages 3 to 12, Woodland Adventure features hollow trees, suspension bridges and giant largemouth bass designed to be climbed in and over. 800-366-7811; mnzoo.com.