After a long winter stuck inside, no one's looking more eagerly toward spring than Baltimore families. It's time to get the kids outside and reconnected with nature, wildlife and the exotic critters someone can run into only at a zoo, aquarium or nature center.
Over the chilly months, some of the area's favorite animal attractions got older, wiser and -- who knows? -- maybe even a bit cuter, even as a new baby or two arrived on the scene.
The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore had a particularly rough winter and is especially hopeful that animal lovers return this spring in droves. February's snowstorms knocked down trees and damaged exhibits, particularly the African and Maryland marsh aviaries.
The animals made it though all right, but the snow damage, estimated at $1.5 million, delayed the zoo's opening, further squeezing the already financially strapped institution.
Even so, the zoo opened last Saturday, with penguins standing at the gate in the rain to welcome back visitors. Zoo lovers will want to check in with Samson the elephant, who turns 2 on March 19. The zoo is throwing the little guy, who weighs in at 2,000 pounds, a party from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 20.
Samson will get his own birthday cake, while visitors can have a slice of a confection made by Charm City Cakes. Kids will be able to get their faces painted, sing "Happy Birthday" and sign his birthday card.
On April 2-4, it's Bunny BonanZOO, where kids can hunt for treats from the Easter Bunny around the Waterfowl Lake Pavilion from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Then, on April 17 and 18, it's Big Cat Awareness Weekend, highlighting the zoo's majestic kitties, including lions, leopards and cheetahs. Visitors will be able to learn more about the big cats, chat with zookeepers and participate in the Big Cat Olympics challenge.
In Washington, the National Zoo has a couple of new attractions -- and another huge one possible this spring. In February, the zoo brought in a baby giant octopus that will be growing over the year to 13 times its current size. They're calling the 3-pound squirmer "the giant panda of invertebrates" because of the attention they expect it will get.
Also, a 4-year-old Andean bear named Billie Jean gave birth to twins in mid-January. They are the first Andean cubs born at the zoo in 22 years and the only ones born in a zoo that survived in the past five years. The little cubs and mama, which people can see now on a bear-cam, will be making their public debut in the spring.
There's a chance for one more big baby at the National Zoo: Giant panda Mei Xiang could be expecting. The panda was artificially inseminated in January, so if she's carrying a cub, which is quite difficult for zookeepers to know for certain, she could deliver by late spring. The baby would thrill the legions of admirers of Tai Shan, the panda born at the zoo four years ago, which was returned to his native China in February.
The National Aquarium in Baltimore has a few wee ones of its own. Within the past few weeks, the aquarium has seen the birth of a baby sloth and a dolphin calf. Both the little sloth and dolphin are already roaming their exhibits with their mothers and could be spotted by visitors in the right place at the right time.
An apt spot to celebrate Earth Day this year is Irvine Nature Center in Owings Mills. On April 18, the center has planned an event called Kids Unplugged, where families can take off the iPods, turn off the TVs and explore nature. Families can make reusable lunchboxes, bird feeders, puzzles and worm bins, and compete in recycled kite races. There will be tours of the grounds and a chance to plant a tree in honor of a loved one.