I am often unsure how to spend the few free hours of my week. Sleep, homework and friends all seem like viable options, but it turns out that Bridgeport actually has something better than all three combined: a zoo.

If you’re anything like me, it’s been years since you enjoyed the wonders of the animal kingdom wrapped up like presents in small holding cells. The Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport has just the solution for this dearth of viewing experience: “Amur tigers, wolves, bears, otters, ocelots, tropical birds, monkeys and approximately 120 species” reside in the facility in Beardsley Park, according to the zoo’s brochure.

Obviously there is no way that the brochure is lying, but when I visited the zoo last week, I couldn’t for the life of me spot that many creatures: I saw a single bear, a single (extremely lazy / possibly sick) ocelot and maybe 60 other species. There were a few signs — most disappointingly about the American Alligator — that said the animals had gone away because of the cold weather, but other times there were just empty pens.

I tend to think zoos are depressing. I once went to the Beijing Zoo and almost cried at the state of the tigers (visible rib cages and hard cement cells), but Beardsley was way better. The conditions were such that I was able to enjoy the antics of the groundhogs or the possibly schizophrenic running back and forth of the Spectacled Bear without breaking down in tears.

The girl I went with wasn’t as impressed. She commented at least five times about how the animals looked unhappy or uncomfortable. I didn’t really see any evidence of this besides the ocelot that cowered in the corner of its habitat, pressed against the cement walls. The only other instance was perhaps the otters — three of them — that seemed immensely intent on escaping: they were repeatedly throwing themselves against the walls of their surroundings. That was hilarious.

But the highlight of the Beardsley Zoo is by far and away the wolf exhibit. From my vantage point, I counted two timberwolves and five red wolves: and I learned from the power of observation that timberwolves enjoy lying on their stomachs and doing nothing, while red wolves prefer standing and congregating in one corner of a considerably large pen. I also learned that wolves look like really big puppies.

But the exhibit was much more than just the two species; it included an entire building dedicated to the preservation and history of wolves in the Americas and around the world. The viewing room / wolf museum also included the most unabashedly overblown quote of all time: “The wolf symbolizes the wonder and beauty of nature,” which was attributed to Stephen R. Kellert GRD ’71, the Tweedy Ordway Professor Emeritus of Social Ecology and senior research scholar at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

The zoo also has a barnyard section with pigs, goats, cows and sheep. If you have ever been to a farm, this probably won’t be too exciting for you, but it’s adorable to watch little kids try to pet the pigs. And if the dispensers are working, you can even feed a goat. I also learned from this part of the zoo that sheep are clearly the bros of the animal world: their impressive flow and totally laid-back attitude are most excellent.

But even if you hate animals, the Beardsley Zoo has something for you; there is a giant sculpture of a cow that nicely approximates what happens when you genetically alter a bovine, an impressive fountain that would look great in Boca, and a carousel that accurately simulates jumping on the back of one of the zoo creatures.

My friend and I also visited the greenhouse on the zoo grounds. I’m not a big plant guy, so I don’t think I can give an expert appraisal of the collection, but I can say that I never knew there were so many different kinds of cacti. But seriously, there was an entire room dedicated to cacti, and it was really impressive.

Yet despite these many attractions, the award for best non-animal part of the zoo hands down goes to the gift shop. This store alone is reason enough to head over to Bridgeport: in addition to some killer coloring books and some basic scientific thingies, the shop carries the best collection of stuffed animals I have ever witnessed. It suffices to say that the number of species represented rivaled that of the living animals.

Although you may not have heard of it, the Beardsley Zoo has a long history in the area. It can trace its roots back to 1878 when James Beardsley gave over 100 acres to Bridgeport. Six years later, Frederick Law Olmstead — who designed Central Park — was contracted by the city to create the park. Around the same time, Phineas T. Barnum (of Barnum & Bailey Circus fame) would regularly exercise his animals throughout Bridgeport, and this was supposedly the inspiration for a 1920 campaign to create the zoo. After this was passed, Bridgeport citizens donated animals and the Barnum & Bailey Circus sent retired animals to establish the zoo’s collection.

Most of the people at the zoo were families with small children. During my almost two hours walking around, I saw only one adult couple by themselves and one lonely-looking guy hanging out by the monkeys. But rather than feeling out of place, this demographic representation solidified my enjoyment of the experience. I couldn’t help but feel that I’d discovered a gem of a location only 25 minutes away from home.

Transportation issues, however, should be noted. There is a train that goes into downtown Bridgeport, but you’ll still need a cab to get to the zoo. If you decide to take a taxi from Yale, be prepared for the 47 dollar flat-fee that the company will slap on you in each direction.

But if you can find a way there, I definitely recommend giving the zoo a visit — although I would wait until spring so you can see the alligators. There is a definite charm to the location as it brings both a supporting-local-businesses feeling and an adorable factor to any weekend outing. Plus, as I was recounting the experience to a friend, she told me that girls by and large really like animals. If this is the case, The Beardsley Zoo should make the shortlist of good date activities in the area. But more importantly, even if you can’t find anyone to join you, I’d still recommend visiting the zoo to bro out with the sheep.