From the first moment I stepped out of my car I could hear the exotic sounds coming from just beyond the fence. I couldn’t wait to start my safari through Roer’s Zoofari, Vienna’s very own zoo. Filled with animals, reptiles and birds from almost every continent, and owned and operated by Vanessa and Jacob Roer, it is a treasure trove of animal encounters.
We Bought a Zoo!
“I never thought we’d be buying a zoo,” Vanessa Roer said with a laugh. She, in fact, was coming off a great success with the opening of and seven-year history with the 160-acre Bearizona Wildlife Park, and considering becoming a zoo industry consultant. Her husband is a third-generation Arizona rancher.
When Vanessa found out the former Reston Zoo was for sale, she and then-fiancé Jacob came to Virginia to take a look. “I fell in love with the area and the size and scope of the zoo. I could just picture our children playing and growing up here” (they have 5 between them). So they bought the zoo.
It all happened quickly. The couple looked at the property in February 2016, took over operations on March 15, 2016 to prepare for the Easter rush that would sustain them for the remainder of the year, and finalized the deal in June. They married later that year.
When asked about similarities to the movie, “We Bought a Zoo,” Roer replied, “There are 100% similarities. One is the USDA inspector. Those scenes are a good look at our industry and our business, with the role and impact those regulatory industries play. They come unannounced, like in the movie, and we drop everything and take in every suggestion and concern.
“Also, like in the movie, we were open and waiting for people to come.” And come they did, with about 130,000 visitors in 2017. Gate admissions are important, as Roer’s relies almost solely on them to cover the bulk of its costs to maintain the animals whose diets alone can range up to hundreds of dollars a month each.
When the Roers purchased the zoo it was primarily a petting zoo. Since taking over, the variety of animals has changed quite a bit. Many local residents who have fond memories of visiting the sheep and goats in the barn will truly enjoy the new, more enriching habitats.
“We have many species now that are part of conservation breeding programs, or are threatened or endangered,” Roer explained. One of their first acquisitions was Waffles, the giraffe. Guests may notice that Waffles’ tongue hangs out. That is a result of a fall he took as a youngster where he managed to knock his teeth out. “He is quite self-conscious about it but has no problems eating the carrots and romaine zoo food people offer him.”
Some of the newest acquisitions include two cheetahs, a tamandua (lesser anteater) and a prehensile-tailed porcupine that guests can meet personally in the keeper chats. The collection also includes two breeding groups of lemurs (on the endangered list), and two anoa, the world’s smallest water buffalo. Fewer than 100 anoa remain in the U.S. and 1,000 in the wild.
Animal Interactions Are Encouraged
“It is important for people to have a quality experience when they come here. I want guests to feel like they have a personal relationship with any of our animals, or ideally, all of them,” Roer said.
Kathy Bowden of Herndon brought her two visiting grandchildren, Jackson (7) and Reagan (5) Speck here for the first time. “I liked feeding the animals,” Reagan said. The zoo provides baby bottles, lettuce, carrots and feeding pellets for a small fee.
Monica Stolze was visiting from Ashburn with her children, Taylor (3) and Carson (1). As a 12-month season pass holder, she can visit frequently. “I love being able to spend time outside exploring with my children,” she said. Some of her family’s cherished moments were watching the goats and wart hogs grow up over the seasons, although Carson piped up, “The zebras are my favorites!”
Insider’s Tips for Visiting Roer’s Zoofari
- Come early in the morning, at opening, for the least crowds
- Purchase animal feed and feed the animals
- Bring a camera and a picnic
Both families hopped the open air Safari Bus (free with admission) on a narrated tour through the fenced-in free-roaming safari where we could reach out the windows to touch and feed the animals who curiously approached. Other animals trotted alongside or lounged in the shade as we passed through.
Once back inside the zoo, it was off to the Parakeet Adventure Aviary. Armed with parakeet seed sticks, it was no trouble to lure the gentle, colorful budgies to our hand-held treats for a close-up encounter.
New in 2018
The Roers are always looking for new opportunities for interaction with the animals and this summer added educational talks, signage and action points that will help guests make good decisions in their everyday activities to positively affect wildlife.
Expanded Junior Safari summer day camps are offered throughout the summer for ages 6-12. The bunny yard and an aviary exhibit are also new in 2018, as well as daily camel rides on dromedaries Sam, Eli or Zeke (to the third week in August, except Mondays), owned and operated by camel trainer Wil Caton. Ask nicely and the camel will give Wil a kiss!
- Boo at the Zoo
Throughout the year, guests can engage with Roer’s Zoofari for birthday parties, private zoo tours, Animal Ambassador experiences and field trips, and perhaps take home a lovable stuffed animal from the gift shop.
A lot has changed at Roer’s Zoofari since 2016, and it’s well worth a safari of your own, no matter what your age.
Roer’s Zoofari is located at 1228 Hunter Mill Road in Vienna. Open 7 days a week, 9am–6pm. www.roerszoofari.com.
All photos credit: Linda Barrett