Out on the plains between Midland and Fort Worth lays a lush landscape inhabited by rare beasts of all stripes and spots. People flock there to find fun with friends and family, inspiration, or just to stretch their legs among its well-cultivated gardens. The Abilene Zoological Gardens in Abilene, Texas, marks 50 years of making memories and preserving wildlife this summer, and it’s earned a reputation as a gem on the frontier -- an institution enjoyed by Texans who visit from a large swath of the big state. Accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums for 25 years, the Abilene Zoo’s 16-acre grounds are home to 1,000 animals of more than 270 species. “We’re a great size for young families,” points out Executive Director Bill Gersonde. “Visitors can drop in and tour the facility in less than two hours – or they can take advantage of all the activities and play away the whole afternoon. We don’t require a full-day commitment.” Even better, the zoo opened a new $3.8 million, multispecies Giraffe Safari exhibit this spring, revamping and enlarging the home for the zoo’s mascot species: a herd of six giraffe. Giraffe Safari encompasses more than 30,400 square feet, and includes an African-lodge inspired deck dubbed “Twiga Terrace” for giraffe encounters. “Twiga” means giraffe in Swahili. Guests can interact with the statuesque creatures at eye level, hand-feeding the hungry herbivores leaves of romaine lettuce over a waist-high fence. Encounters are $4 and available on the feeding deck. Other entertaining species join the giraffe herd: a breeding pair of ginger-haired red river hogs, a troop of colobus monkeys, tiny antelopes called blue duikers, large birds such as kori bustards and marabou storks, as well as aldabra tortoises. Nearby, guests can see other African species: lions, an endangered black rhinoceros and crowned cranes. A white Bengal tiger named Havar and two young camels named Dakota and Sahara are fan favorites. The zoo also features a colorful Caribbean Cove section with animals from tropical climes, bright scarlet ibis and macaws, keel-billed toucans, spider monkeys and cotton-topped mandarins, among others. The Elm Creek Backyard area showcases creatures native to North America, a pair of impressive cougars, playful river otters, brightly plumed turkeys, a rescued porcupine named Penelope, vultures and other wildlife. A pair of young jaguar sisters – Luna and Estrella – joined the zoo this spring. The two have quickly become favorites for their frisky feline antics. A family of noisy South American howler monkeys made their debut in May. Their morning and evening howls can be heard up to three miles away. The family includes two active youngsters. The zoo’s Reptile House can compete with large zoos. It displays a bevy of snakes, including a king cobra and a nearly 200-pound, 16-foot albino python named Athena, as well as chameleons and other scaly organisms. Among the zoo’s 37 endangered species are Panamanian Golden frogs, tiny bright-colored toads that are extinct in the wild. The zoo participates in international efforts to breed the species in the hope of reintroducing the animals back to their native home. They’re on exhibit in the Reptile House. On weekends, zoo staff and volunteer docents often offer hands-on experiences with assorted animal ambassadors – miniature goats, a donkey, armadillos, ferrets and other child-friendly domesticated animals. Look for them throughout the grounds. Round out the family fun with a ride on the Safari Express train. The wheelchair accessible train chugs along daily, its conductor educating guests with scripted tours of the park. An old-fashioned but brand new Wildlife Carousel twirls youngsters atop hand-crafted zoo animals. Tokens for both the train and merry-go-round are $2 in the Zoo Store and a prudent purchase when checking in at the front gate. Be sure to make a stop on the fish pier. It’s an understated treat. For a couple of quarters, guests get a handful of fish food and witness a feeding frenzy. Large carp schooled in the art of begging wrangle for tasty morsels tossed from the dock. Other optional activities include the Kilimanjaro Mining Sluice, where children can pan for fossils and gemstones. Prices vary based on which type of “rough” the child chooses to sluice. For refreshment, the zoo offers The Watering Hole concession stand, featuring kid-friendly favorites like burger and hot dog baskets, as well as snacks and the always required respite of a cold drink. Refillable souvenir cups are a good value and keepsake. The Watering Hole offers shaded tables for al fresco dining. Among the zoo’s many surprises is its brightly lit Zoo Store gift shop. It’s stocked with quirky collectibles and animal-themed merchandise to commemorate a memorable zoo visit. Purchases of imported hand-made curios from Kenya support animal preservation in that struggling country, as well as provide unique items to take home or give as gifts. The zoo is situated in Abilene’s award-winning Grover Nelson Park, which features a well-stocked lake for fishing, the custom-built Fort Imagination playground and Nelson Park Splash Pad – free activities for a full day. The little ones may get worn out after all! The Abilene Zoo is easy to find off Interstate 20 East and Texas Highway 36 – across from the Taylor County Expo Center grounds. Look for these three magic letters: ZOO. They stand 10-feet-tall at the entrance to the Nelson Park. The Abilene Zoo is located at 2070 Zoo Lane, Abilene, Texas 79602. The zoo is open 7 days a week (closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Last admittance is 4 p.m. Tickets are $7 for adults, $4.50 for children ages 3-12, $6 for seniors aged 60 and older. Parking is free. Learn more about behind-the-scenes VIP tours and other programming at www.abilenezoo.org. or call 325-676-6085. Follow The Abilene Zoo on Facebook or @abilenezoo on Twitter. Hotel guests can show their room key and receive free child’s admission with each paying adult.