Wild animals? In Atlanta, you can meet them one-on-one

Atlantans are walking on the wild side this spring, enjoying up-close encounters with dolphins, otters, pandas, Komodo dragons and other exotic creatures great and small.

At the Georgia Aquarium and at Zoo Atlanta, you can order up these boutique experiences with the wildlife on exhibit. Most involve feeding snacks to the animals. Some even include an opportunity to touch.

Georgia Aquarium

“I like herring!” says Michael Bernstein when he finds out what’s on the menu for morning snacks.

Sorry Mike. The herring is all for Lily, a 9-year-old dolphin who is part of the “AT&T Dolphin Tales” show at the Georgia Aquarium.

“When we opened ‘Dolphin Tales’ we were always asked ‘Can we touch them?’ ” says Michael Hunt, director of animal training, as the Bernstein family makes its way to a secluded tank near the “Dolphin Tales” theater. “The guests wanted to get closer.”

On a recent weekday morning 13-year-old twins Emily and Zack and parents Mike and Melissa Bernstein are getting ready to do just that. After stepping into a tray filled with a disinfectant solution and removing any dangling jewelry, the group steps to the side of a pool to receive instructions from trainers Lloyd Dodge and Ann Hoedt.

Keep your hands away from the dolphin’s mouth, they are told, and avoid her eyes, her ears and her genital area.

On the other side of a high wall an audience is assembling for the 11 a.m. show, which involves lights, music and human and dolphin performers.

Lily is a stellar athlete, which is made clear by her leaps and her ability to dance backward on her tail. She is also a great actress, nodding and “laughing” on cue.

Emily, kneeling at the edge of the pool, holds out her hands to grasp Lily’s flippers, and the two sway back and forth as if dancing. Lily receives a fishy treat after each trick.

This dolphin encounter comes with a primer on ocean conservation and wise behavior with dolphins in the wild.

Like black bears, dolphins are natural freeloaders, and can become accustomed to begging food off of fishing boats, which puts the animals in danger and sets a bad example for their offspring.

Hunt says people should never feed a dolphin in the wild.

Those in captivity at the Georgia Aquarium eat restaurant-quality fish, he added.

Zoo Atlanta

When a 550-pound tortoise named Big Al silently extends his tree-trunk legs and rises to his full 3-foot height, he seems like an armor-plated scissor lift, with a dinosaur face.

“Wow!” says Meredith Daviston, waiting inches away, with a sweet potato slice on a stick.

“Watch your feet,” says Zoo Atlanta employee David Brothers. “Believe me, if he steps on your foot, you won’t like it.”

Luckily Big Al moves slowly, and waits quite patiently while Daviston’s 5-year-old son Wilson gently strokes his leathery neck.

The Daviston family, including Meredith’s husband, John, and their 2-year-old daughter, Ruby, are getting a hands-on look at a 120-year-old reptile, one of three Aldabra tortoises at Zoo Atlanta.

These tortoises are among a handful of animals at the zoo that are part of the “Wild Encounter” program. Prices for the meet-and-greets range from $35 for a one-on-one with a tortoise to $150 for a closer look at one of the zoo’s giant pandas. (The tortoise encounter is the only one that includes touching. Despite their cuddly looks, pandas are not for petting.)

Each encounter is guided by an expert on the species, and comes with a wealth of background information.