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Holidays on the wild side

Celebrate with the animals

Zoolights at Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma hosts a spectacular light display. Photo courtesy Point Defiance Zoo

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Maybe you're the kind of person who spends half of Thanksgiving Day watching animal videos on YouTube. Perhaps your family needs additions to its regimen of well-loved but timeworn holiday activities. Either way, there's an animal park nearby to spice up your holiday fun with something wild.

Cougar Mountain Zoo

Our first stop is in Issaquah, where Cougar Mountain Zoo has been edifying and astonishing visitors since 1972. This unique eight-acre park boasts an award-winning cougar exhibit plus Bengal tigers, the largest collection of bronze animal statues on Earth, an animal tracks museum and - most relevant to yuletide purposes - the largest herd of Siberian reindeer to be found in any zoo in America. We note this fact in particular because Cougar Mountain Zoo devotes the first three weeks of December to its Issaquah Reindeer Festival, during which time Saint Nick takes up residence to preside over his magical caribou. Children feed the reindeer en route through a Magic Forest, mail letters via Kris Kringle's Post Office, enjoy story time courtesy of his elves, savor a candy cane made before their very eyes, and get merry motifs painted on their faces. Most intriguing of all, Santa's visitors are invited to (and we quote the website here) "admire the strength and skill of Santa's Kittens." Legends tell of Keira, Miksa and Tasha, felines raised from infancy by Santa himself. These whiskered warriors protect the jolly old elf and his antlered assistants on their international Christmas Eve flight. (In your face, Grumpy Cat.) You'll feel even better about your ticket purchase, knowing Cougar Mountain funds and operates wood duck and tree swallow propagation programs along with other wildlife conservation efforts.

Cougar Mountain Zoo, 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, Dec. 1-23, 19525 SE 54th St., Issaquah, free-$14, 425.391.5508,

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

One of our region's foremost holiday extravaganzas is the annual ZooLights celebration at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. This park sparkles at night with the glow of more than half a million colored lights. You'll be dazzled by animated, three-dimensional displays including a 17-foot roaring tiger head, a polar bear clan (sans Coke products), romping reindeer, and a hundred-foot giant Pacific octopus. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays in December, Santa and his elfin assistant brave sharks in the South Pacific Aquarium. On Nov. 30, Dec. 7 and Dec. 14, active-duty servicemembers and veterans with military ID enjoy Zoolights for just eight bucks each, plus discounts on items in the gift shop. That same rate applies to registered Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts displaying uniforms or pins on Dec. 1. While you're smiling through Zoolights, take an opportunity to ride an actual camel. (You know, 'cause Three Wise Men, or something.) If you choose to extend your daytime visit past sundown, you can pass the transitional hour by riding the park's Paul Titus Antique Carousel. This vintage merry-go-round deploys the usual horses in its outer ring, but endangered and native Northwestern species circle its inner ring.

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Zoolights. 5-9 p.m. Nov. 27 through Jan. 3, except Christmas Eve, 5400 N. Pearl St., Tacoma, Zoolights free-$10, combo pass free-$16, 253.591.5337,

Oregon Zoo

Oregon Zoo in Portland has its own ZooLights attraction. If you're willing to drive two hours south, you'll be greeted by the glow of a million and a half lights, plus the smell of such cold-weather treats as cocoa, espresso, pretzels and elephant ears - the fried-dough dessert, that is. Cascade Grill offers wine and local beer in addition to burgers, salads and sandwiches. The zoo takes pride in its three-story Condors of the Columbia aviary, the largest such walk-through environment in North America. Elephants roam free in a customized habitat, and lions prowl mere yards from human visitors in the Predators of the Serengeti exhibit. In the Amazon flooded forest, dwarf caimans and red-bellied piranhas cruise beneath howler monkeys, white-faced saki monkeys and a beautiful but deadly emerald tree boa.

Oregon Zoo. ZooLights. 5-8 p.m. Nov. 27 through Jan. 3, except Christmas Day, 4001 SW Canyon Road, Portland, Oregon. ZooLights free-$14.95, 503.226.1561,

Woodland Park Zoo

A shorter (when not congested) drive north, Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo hosts a Noachian assortment of creatures from grizzlies, oryxes and orangutans to poison dart frogs and bearded and Komodo dragons. Kids love shuddering at the sight of emperor scorpions, hissing cockroaches, giant millipedes, assassin bugs and other icky invertebrates. The zoo's WildLights display is less plentiful here than in Portland, but it offers such animated highlights as a mock snowball fight. Schedule holiday parties for up to 400 people inside this winter wonderland, with special gourmet fare available from Lancer Catering. For a real feast, check out the annual Turkey Toss from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 21. Store-bought turkeys get flung into the gaping jaws of park carnivores. Happy Thanksgiving, hungry lions, jaguars, grizzlies, wolves and snow leopards! Oh, how your little ones' eyes will sparkle as they behold the awesome majesty of nature, as it's crushed into crimson smears at a bite strength of 1,250 PSI. Ho, ho, ho!

Woodland Park Zoo, WildLights. 5:30-8:30 p.m., Nov. 27 through Jan. 3, except Christmas Eve and Day, 5500 Phinney Ave. N., Seattle, WildLights free-$9.95, 206.548.2500,

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