By Martha Steger

I asked a friend who announced she’d “never been into zoos” if she had ever seen bats walking. “Walking?” she asked, as though I’d misspoken.

Sure, I’d seen more than my share of flying bats — the only mammals that fly — during my first 18 years of life in a big old farmhouse with just enough space between the eaves and upper walls for the occasional bat to slide through and gain access to our attic, and, from there, access the bedrooms one floor below. (My father was adept at getting them back outdoors.) But walking bats weren’t something I’d seen until I visited the North Carolina Zoo, 7 miles south of Asheboro, where they stared back at me from behind the glass of their woodland environment that had been re-created by staff. I stared back, noticing the distinctly longer front limbs with webbing resembling wings; I watched these strong front limbs give the push to move forward, helping with locomotion the way an ape’s knuckles do.

I’ve visited zoos from Berlin to the Bronx, but the North Carolina Zoo, with more than 1,800 African and North American animals on 500 developed acres, lives up to its reputation as the world’s largest walk-through natural-habitat zoo, with 5 miles of trails. The carefully re-created environments of species from bats to bison are expansive, with the elk and bison habitat reminiscent of the environment at Yellowstone National Park. There’s even a tower for chimney swifts. Perhaps it was just luck, but I also saw my first ocelots. Secretive animals, these wild cats had always been hiding behind rocks when I visited other zoos.