Ever since he was born two years ago, a visit to the Maryland Zoo has become all about the baby elephant.

Visitors rush to his enclosure as soon as the doors open, knowing that Samson will only be on display for a couple of hours. They watch as the calf playfully squirts water from his trunk and nuzzles his mother. Then, they may hightail it over to the giraffes or the monkey house or the Polar Bear Watch before calling it a day.

But if they bypass the Maryland Wilderness exhibition, they're not seeing half of the zoo. While a merganser can't compete with a zebra and a snowy egret is not the same as a polar bear, these birds and their habitats have a lot to teach about the Chesapeake Bay.

"This was set up to really be a walk across Maryland," said Kathryn Foat, vice president of the zoo's education and volunteer programs. "We tried to build it so if you read any one of these signs, you create a story for yourself."

Maryland Wilderness signs ask such questions as "what good is a marsh?" and encourage visitors to identify and locate different kinds of birds like teals, owls and herons. The 8-acre area actually feels quite cozy, compared with the rest of the zoo; there are no large overlooks or enclosures, just smaller areas where the habitat is as much a part of the experience as the animals themselves.

The Maryland Wilderness area opened in 1989, more than 100 years after the zoo did, and just six years after the Chesapeake Bay agreement was signed

The idea was to allow visitors to experience the world as the animals did, Foat said-as creatures dependent on their habitat. If people could connect their behaviors to their effects on habitat, they might become more conscious about issues such as recycling and water conservation.

Immediately, there were challenges. Unlike elephants, birds can hide behind trees or under footbridges. They don't stay put. The designers decided to turn that into an asset, and made finding and identifying the birds part of the fun.

Visitors may not notice it at first, but the wilderness area is an aviary, covered in netting, allowing the birds to move around as they please from trees to brooks. But many, like the long-eared owl, stay in their favorite spots.

Another challenge was the smaller area, which was without a marquee attraction. But nature took care of that, too: The wilderness area is shaded and pleasant, and not too crowded. It includes some interactive fun-such as lily pads kids can jump on and a tree slide. A walk through it ends at a petting zoo, where kids can feed cattle and goats and admire the black Ossabow pig.

Children can hunt for bog turtles and quail, as well as meadow grass and black-eyed susans. Sometimes, on the paths above, a deer runs through.

"I think of our zoo as the place where you're going to fall in love with nature," Foat said. "And if you're not going to fall in love, you're not going to care. And if you're not going to care, you're not going to engage in conservation behavior."

In 2007, the zoo became part of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network. It was, Foat said, an opportunity for the zoo to introduce itself to a whole new group of people -those who were looking for outdoor activities, and who lived outside of Baltimore and Maryland. Being included on the Gateways web site reminded people that the zoo was still in Druid Hill Park, and open for business-at a time when some may have doubted its future.

Since the early 1990s, it had struggled-in part because of its own crumbling infrastructure. In 2003, the zoo laid off 20 employees and sent more than 400 animals to other facilities.

The next year, it was still in such dire financial straits that it considered loaning two elephants-Dolly and Anna-to other institutions. That move prompted the state legislature to take action, funneling emergency funds to the zoo. About $1 million in private donations also poured in.

The zoo also changed its name from the Baltimore Zoo to the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore-both to appeal to a wider audience and acknowledge the state's support.

When the zoo re-opened in 2005, it included a revamped polar bear exhibit and a tram service, which transports visitors from the free parking lot to the zoo exhibits. It also set up a popular station where guests could feed the giraffes. It moved the children's rides to a more central place, with benches for parents to watch. It added concession areas and rest rooms and fixed some of the infrastructure issues.

And it is seeking more partnerships such as the one it has with the Baltimore Ravens. The zoo's ravens, Rise and Conquer, are regulars at their namesake's games at M & T Bank Stadium. During the months it is closed, the zoo participates in an exchange with the Maryland Science Center and the B & O Railroad Museum, hoping to encourage those institution's members to consider a membership at the zoo.

Today, the zoo attracts 350,000 visitors a year, according to zoo public relations director Jane Ballentine.

It's possible to see the whole zoo in about three hours. It breaks nicely into three parts: Maryland Wilderness/children's area, Polar Bear Watch, and African Journey.

If visitors are lucky, one of the polar bears will be taking a swim, or lolling on the "beach" next to the water. They can also visit the arctic fox and the snowy owl here.

The bulk of the zoo's traffic often seems to head to African Journey. In addition to the baby elephant, which is on display 10 a.m. to noon each day, there is a monkey house, leopards, cheetahs, lions and giraffe house. Camel rides are also available.

Because there is a lot to pack into one day, many visitors buy memberships. A family membership costs about $90, and pays for itself with only two visits for a family of 4.

So if a family is unsuccessful in finding the bog turtle in the Maryland Wilderness, there's always next time.

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, March through December. It is closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The zoo is located in Druid Hill Park, just off Interstate 83 and about 10 minutes northwest of downtown Baltimore.

Admission is $15 per adult, $12 per senior and $10 per child on weekends. Weekday admissions are $13 per adult, $11 per senior and $9 per child.

The zoo offers some web specials at www.marylandzoo.org.

For information, call 410-366-LION.