SCREECHING monkeys, boisterous gorillas, prowling tigers and waddling penguins are some of the joys my family looks forward to on our regular outings to Dublin Zoo. (You may also have spotted another exotic creature, namely J-Lo).
We're regular zoo-goers, visiting Dublin Zoo every eight or 10 weeks with three very eager kids. Sometimes we take friends or cousins, too, other times it's a nice, spontaneous way to while away a Sunday afternoon en famille while keeping the kids entertained and active.
We bought an annual family pass for €165, which may seem like a big outlay, but has since gone on to pay for itself, while encouraging us to come to the zoo more regularly. Our youngest is still under three so goes free, but a yearly pass still made financial sense to us. Covering three adults and two kids or two adults and four kids, there's plenty of ways to invite guests, like grandparents, for free. The passholder is also allowed to take six kids on their own, which is great value, but not something I'm brave enough to try just yet!
A once-off family ticket to Dublin Zoo for two adults and two children costs €44.50, so if you think you're likely to visit four times a year, the annual pass saves you money. If €44.50 seems expensive, consider these other family favourites. You can take a family of four to the circus for €48, but if you want ringside seats expect very little change from €100.
Or what about an afternoon at the movies? A family-of-four can go to a matinee for under €40, but there's no way the kids will let you get past the snack counters without forking out on popcorn or drinks. You'll probably feel drawn towards the popcorn and candyfloss in the big top, too.
You can bring treats with you, of course, and we're big advocates of keeping costs down. We usually take a picnic to the zoo, which the kids always love, and it helps break up the long walk for little legs. It adds to the overall sense of occasion, too, and is one of the reasons the kids shriek with delight when they hear where we're off to.
Not everyone is a fan of the zoo, but few can deny its appeal to children. The animal enclosures can sometimes seem a bit small and limiting, and it's easy to hypothesise inhabitants would be happier in the wild, roaming free. What detractors sometimes fail to acknowledge is that zoos play an important role in international breeding programmes, bolstering the world's animal population, especially endangered species.
Fota Wildlife Park is another amazing day out, with larger spaces for the animals, and an annual zoo pass allows free entry here, too. Its cheetah-breeding programme has had amazing success and many Fota-born animals, including a scimitar-horned oryx, European bison calves and a white- tailed eagle have all been released into the wild.
For instant wildlife, log on to Dublin Zoo's live webcams at www.dublinzoo.ie. My crew love logging on to check on the elephants, glimpse some wolf action or look out for creatures on the African savanna. Their favourite is the penguin enclosure -- the cute little birds always make us giggle.