Take me to the zoo
We lived relatively close to a famous Zoo and it was free so our mother took us there quite often. I was ambivalent about it early on because I was terrified of its most famous exhibit, Phil the Gorilla, still formidable in death (he was so beloved and huge that they stuffed him and put him on display).
A live portrait reveals his charming side, but how was I to know when I was three?
Eventually, I got over my fear and became completely fascinated. I attribute the switch to Sunday evenings spent watching Marlin Perkins on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.
Honestly, I think Marlin Perkins was my first hero. He was kind, brave, and cool. When I found out he ran the zoo, I was thrilled. I wanted to grow up to have a job like his and I even checked out zoology books (silly me) from the library. Once I realized that it wasn’t all cuddly animals and fun expeditions to exotic places, I changed my focus to archaeology (it was the mummy’s toe in the museum that seduced me, but that’s another blog post), but I still loved the zoo and continued to visit.
Over the years I’ve spent many memorable hours there, some better than others. Once we went after church on a cold, cold day when it was sleeting, but it turned out to be one of our best trips ever because the polar bears were frolicking as we’d never seen them. They put on quite a show and we felt privileged to have seen them. We also felt intrepid for being out in such weather.
Another time, when a neighbor took a bunch of us to the zoo, I got my knee stuck in the bars at the reptile house. I was not a skinny kid. Everyone left and I couldn’t get my knee out! I distinctly remember the moment of panic. They did come back and I did get loose, but it was humiliating. The reptile house was always awesome though. Not like the smelly monkey house, which we usually avoided.
Our mother was an adventurous person, but she had her vulnerabilities and the grand bird cage was one of them. It creeped her out to be in an enclosed space with birds flying around, but she made herself do it anyway. She was like that.
When I was a little older I spent a lot of time one summer wandering around with a friend whose mother worked in the office there — we got to ride the train for free and spent most of our time harassing the teenagers who worked at the train stations and generally running amok. I’m not sure how much animal watching we did, but we sure had fun.
After college, when I worked at the museum for a year, we used to walk down the hill to eat lunch at the zoo if it wasn’t too hot. On one occasion as we munched on sandwiches in front of the brown bears, we were shocked when one of them scooped up a bird taking a bath in the pool and bit its head off. It didn’t do much for our appetites, but it did remind us that wild animals are still wild, zoo or no zoo!
When my dual personality got married and had children we took them there and later, when I came to visit with my own kids a trip to the zoo was mandatory. I have always loved that place. It’s more crowded these days and on a really busy day, it can be hard to see the animals, but it still has a lot of its World’s Fair charm. There is no good zoo anywhere near where we live now, so we have made a point of taking the kids to zoos whenever we can. They’ve been to Toronto and the Bronx zoo and various wild life parks, but I haven’t liked any of them as much as the one Marlin Perkins made famous.
If you can, go to a zoo!