Like many Oregonians who are neither adolescents nor parents, I hadn't been to the Oregon Zoo in years. I'd gone with my little cousins occasionally, but as I recently walked up to the zoo's Black Bear Ridge, I realized it had been too long.

I was not here for a typical visit, however. Instead, I came for an Animal Encounter, an up close meeting that the Oregon Zoo has put together to offer a more intimate, behind the scenes rendezvous with zoo residents.

It was the best couple of hours I've spent in a long time.

My first encounter was with Bebeto, a prehensile-tailed porcupine. Covered in white spikes, with a large, bulbous nose and a long, smooth tail, Bebeto looked like an Adult Swim character that had strutted off the screen and onto a table in the center of the room. Bebeto ate thick slices of sweet potato while animal specialist Sarena filled me in on the dietary habits, the quirks, the activities and the behavior of this slow-moving climber, whose natural habitat is Central and South America.

Bebeto the porcupine leans in for a piece of yam, his favorite snack. (Henry Cromett)
Bebeto the porcupine leans in for a piece of yam, his favorite snack. (Henry Cromett)

Bebeto munched noisily as Sarena explained how he had been raised in human care, and was very accustomed to being around people. When I got to feed him a hunk, he gingerly took it in his teeth without hesitation. My cousins (I said to myself) will be very jealous.

My next encounter was with Pelé, a blue-and-gold macaw. During my encounter, animal specialist Jerrica handed him a paintbrush and Pelé precisely moved the brush around with his beak, dropped it in the paint dish, swiftly moving his neck to bring the brush against the paper in a dramatic swipe and painted what looked to be a crude sunset. Jerrica explained that painting masterpieces is one of the ways animal care staff keep Pelé's mind engaged and provide him with exercise.

Pelé the macaw grabs a brush to paint us a landscape. (Henry Cromett)
Pelé the macaw grabs a brush to paint us a landscape. (Henry Cromett)

Macaws have broad wings that allow them to fly long distances for food. When asked to by Jerrica, Pelé extended his wings up to the sky, displaying a luxurious curtain of rich royal blue, and giving the specialists a chance to do a quick visual check of feather and wing health at the same time. Up close, I could see the zebra-patterned white and black rings around each eye.

Pelé shows his massive wingspan to his animal specialist, Jerrica. (Henry Cromett)
Pelé shows his massive wingspan to his animal specialist, Jerrica. (Henry Cromett)

My last encounter was with Kamaria, a huge milky eagle owl. The moment her enormous black eyes scanned the room, the specialists asked her to fly to a perch across the room. She dipped low on her flight, brushing my hair with her feathery wingtips. When preparing to fly again, I ducked, but Kamaria only dipped lower, mischievously brushing against me again.

Kamaria appears huge, but she only weighs four pounds. Her chambered skeletal structure adds strength, but also serves as a part of the respiratory system, so air passes through the owl's bones. I asked if mice were released alive in her aviary at the zoo, and the specialists explained that though the nutritionist freezes her food to kill bacteria, a fair share of native critters wander into her aviary, much to Kamaria's delight.

Kamaria, the mischievous milky eagle owl. (Henry Cromett)
Kamaria, the mischievous milky eagle owl. (Henry Cromett)

Owls aren't typically social with humans, so there were no paintbrushes in this case. The oils on human hands are bad for their feathers, so although she's comfortable with humans in close proximity, petting is off the table too. But getting a sort of owl high-five in passing was more than I could've asked for.

The zoo now offers more than 15 different encounters, often with animals you wouldn't get to see otherwise, like Bebeto or the majestic Kamaria. You can also arrange an encounter with elephants, otters, penguins, reptiles and sloths. Most of the encounters allow you to bring six or more people and the cost ranges from $10 a person to $150, depending on the experience.

The animal encounters offer an eye into a unique animal and its world, as well as the world of the specialists who interact with the animals every day. No two experiences will be the same—I can't guarantee you'll also get an owl high-five—but I can say that it was very hard to leave that room and head back to the real world, where artistic birds aren't flying overhead, and a South American rodent isn't politely reaching out to you for a snack.

(Henry Cromett)
(Henry Cromett)

Book your own Animal Encounter experience at the Oregon Zoo! Visit oregonzoo.org/encounters to see available tours and encounters.