You don't have to go far to get up close with creatures great and small, discovers Bronwyn Sell.
It's an indictment on urban child-rearing that for the first two years of my elder son's life, elephants and tigers were everyday animals, while cows and pigs were exotic curiosities.
Oscar was given an Auckland Zoo annual pass for his first birthday so we spent the following year getting on a first-name basis with Kashin, Burma and friends but we rarely got out of town.
For him, drives into the countryside were akin in excitement to a safari tour through the Serengeti. Forget the Big Five of Africa - lions, elephants, rhinos, buffalo and the elusive leopard. We would stalk cows, sheep, horses, chickens and the elusive pig.
To this day in our family the song The Lion Sleeps Tonight starts with: "In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the chicken sleeps tonight..."
Now 3-and-a-third, Oscar is still obsessed with animals, both domestic and exotic. And, with my younger son turning one and becoming fascinated with all things that move, I figured it was a good time to introduce him to a world beyond the blackbirds that reign over our backyard.
So, over the course of a month, we embarked on our own urban - and urban-fringe - safari adventure. From Clevedon to Warkworth, from crocodile to wallaby, we wandered. Four adventures plus dozens of animals equalled two very happy little nature-lovers.
I've always thought that any attraction with the word "sheep" in the title was strictly for the kind of tourist who pulls over alongside State Highway One to pose for photos with a rumble of romneys.
But on the quiet Tuesday that we visit SheepWorld Farm and Nature Park, 4km north of Warkworth, it appears to have a strictly local clientele. The entertainment is also firmly of the local variety - a good-humoured shepherding and sheep-shearing demonstration (complete with black singlet), a farmyard, a nursery of animals so cute you could almost eat them (and maybe one day you will), an eel pond, possums and a nature trail through native bush, wetlands and streams.
The 3-year-old earned his Kiwi Kid credentials by shearing a sheep (or, at least, holding the clippers for about 10 seconds while standing as far back as possible from the woolly mammoth) and bottle-feeding a lamb.
And the 1-year-old - usually a wriggly blur - actually came into focus for a good half an hour as he sat, transfixed, through the sheep and dog show.
There's also an adventure terrain park sculpted from boulders, logs and ropes that the 3-year-old relished scrambling over, as well as a conventional playground, cafe and picnic area.
We might just become regular sheep tourists.
Butterfly Creek has crocodiles, giant wetas, tarantulas and clownfish - but it was the chicken that the 3-year-old invited to his birthday party. While less-discerning children were concentrating on the showier animals at the Mangere attraction's petting zoo - the rabbits, the baby goats, the lambs - Oscar got down on his knees and had a long conversation with a very nice bantam through the planks of its pen. I didn't catch much of the exchange but I did hear the words, "you come to my birthday party?" I assume the answer was yes, because Oscar seemed satisfied.
In fact, there's plenty to satisfy the children at Butterfly Creek, a minute's drive from Auckland Airport. The petting zoo is interactive, with opportunities for the (human) kids to have a cuddle with a rabbit or guinea pig and feed the farm animals. You can stroll along the boardwalk in the tropical Butterfly House, with thousands of little wings brushing past or fluttering into your hair (slightly disconcerning but cool). There's an aquarium that includes the obligatory Nemo (clownfish) and Dory (blue tang). There's a room full of (contained) creepy crawlies including a doll's house full of cockroaches. There are two enormous sleepy crocodiles, a lounge of lizards and a congregation of alligators. There's a playground with trampoline. And there's even a miniature train ride through wetlands and the petting farm.
So what did the 3-year-old run in to tell Dad about the minute we got home? His new best chicken friend.
Clevedon Animal Farm
Clevedon Animal Farm is a quiet and gentle place, set back in rolling hills near Clevedon Village. Lifelong animal trainer Lynn Collecutt opened it as a farm experience in 2001 to offer people encounters with safe and "kind" animals.
We arrive too late to catch Lynn's horse and dog show, put on for a local preschool, but once the swarm of kids departs Oscar has the pick of several miniature ponies to be lead around the arena on. He chooses Shadow the donkey followed by miniature ponies Star and Jodie. I can tell by the solemn look of concentration on his face throughout that he's blissfully happy. The 1-year-old has far less of a poker face, grinning with all eight teeth when his turn comes.
Usually, Lynn's one-hour farm walk and pony ride experience begins with the children wandering down a hill to feed sheep, goats, ducks and donkeys before catching and haltering a pony and leading it back to the arena for grooming and saddling.
Because the ponies are already ready to go when we arrive, we do it backwards. After the pony ride, we wander down to feed the animals. When the one-year-old lunges for the chicken's meal I figure it's probably lunch time, so we flick open our lunchboxes under a shady tree in Lynn's picnic area.
Lynn also offers a full-day family farm experience (not suitable for toddlers) - including horseriding, feeding and caring for the animals and a campfire lunch - and a school holiday programme.
A former national dog-obedience titleholder and dressage rider, Lynn has big plans for the Rugby World Cup, which involve turning the arena into a rugby stadium and drilling the ponies in try-scoring for a special show (they're already pretty handy with a soccer ball). It's likely to be the most orderly game of the tournament.
It's all very well for Auckland Zoo to boast of having more than 700 animals of 117 different species, but if you're going to give each species its due regard (say 10 minutes of attention each), you'll need to be there for 19.5 hours. Which would give you outstanding value for your entry fee, but it might be hard to keep up the kids' enthusiasm.
Far better to get an annual pass so you can adopt a more strategic approach. Spend a Saturday having an African adventure. Get to Western Springs in time for the 11.15am giraffe encounter, in which the kids can squeal at being gently goobied while feeding celery to Zabulu, the big daddy of the zoo's three giraffes. Tick off the rhinos, flamingoes, hippos, baboons, servals, cheetahs, antelope, zebras, ostriches - and lunch - before reporting for the twice-weekly lion encounter at 1.45pm. (It's your best chance to see the languid Panthera leo krugeri doing anything more dramatic than yawning.)
On your next visit, make it an Asian jungle theme (tigers, monkeys, gibbons, orangutans, red pandas and Asian elephant Burma) or an Australasian theme (kiwi, kaka, emus, kangaroos, tuatara, wallabies, cranes, seals). Or just pop in for a more domestic experience in the KidZone, with its rabbits, guinea pigs, pigs, chickens and mice, followed by a picnic lunch and a bit of playground time.
Brilliant in theory, isn't it? And I swear that one day I'm going to follow my own advice, rather than feeling I have to justify the 17.8 km drive to the zoo by forcing the kids to fully appreciate every single parrot and frog. But, each time we go, I forget this. The animal hunt gets addictive.
The day we visit for this story I feel like a tour-bus guide. The kids get comfortable in the double pram and I keep up a running commentary: "To your left you'll see the Eastern blue-tongued skink, to your right the rare yellow-bibbed lory."
Several hours and several hundred animals later, the kids can't remember their servals from their siamangs and I'm exhausted.
Next time we're getting a pass and just popping in for the macaw encounter. I swear.
State Highway One, 4km north of Warkworth, ph (09) 425 7444
Open: 9am-5pm daily.
Cost: Adults $25 (includes sheep/dog show), children 4-13 years $9, under-4s free.
Tom Pearce Drive, Auckland International Airport, Mangere, ph (09) 275 8880
Open: 9am-5.30pm daily in March (last entry 4.45pm). From April, 9am-5pm.
Cost: Adults $19.90 (combo pass, includes all attractions), children 3-15 years $10.50, under-3s free.
Clevedon Animal Farm
271 Clevedon Kawakawa Rd, Clevedon, ph (09) 292 9231
Open: Farm walk and pony ride Monday-Saturday by appointment only.
Cost: $10 per person (minimum spend $20). Under-2s free.
Motions Rd, Western Springs, ph (09) 360 3805
Open: 9.30am-5.30pm daily (last entry 4.15pm). Winter hours (from May) 9.30am-5pm. Check website for animal encounter times.
Cost: Adults $20, children 4-14 years $10, under-4s free.