I love zoos. I love animals. The medium sized city I grew up in had a really nice zoo for its size, and I remember many wonderful, sunny trips there. Sometime around the time that I was in junior high, they even overhauled and modernized a number of their exhibits, giving the big cats more space and that kind of thing. I even hauled three of my good friends to the zoo for my 18th birthday. I figured, I it was my birthday and I could do what I wanted.
Since then, the zoos and aquariums I've had access to have been major metropolitan ones. Vancouver's aquarium is world class (birthplace of Baby Beluga), and their zoo is huge. In one sense anyway. The Vancouver zoo has the largest ratio of acreage to animals of any animal out there. If you go there, prepare for a hike. And pack your binoculars. If the animals are at the back of their enclosures, you won't be seeing much. One of my favorite parenting memories is of taking our oldest daughter--then sixteen months old--to the Vancouver zoo and watching her discover elephants. They were right next to the parking lot. Her eyes went up . . . and up . . . and up. She planted her hand on her nose, baby-signing "elephant." She "talked" about the elephants for days.
Our visit to the Seattle zoo was nice, even while it was pouring rain. While we were living in the mountains in Colorado, our "home" zoo was the one in Denver. The pride of that zoo, if you'll pardon the pun, is their lion exhibit. And they do it right. We saw a baby giraffe only a month old there, and usually planted ourselves in the ape house to watch the gorillas for a while. (The elk zoo out our front door in Colorado was good as well, though limited in its variety.)
Omaha. Oh my gosh. If you ever get a chance to spend the day there, take it. Our day at the Omaha zoo will remain in my mind as one of those God-sent grace notes in my mind. The zoo is about half a mile off of I-80, and we had passed it several times driving back and forth from Colorado back to see family in the Midwest. When we planned to make the move, I decided that I wanted to block in an afternoon to stop there and give our family a break. We left the mountains Wednesday evening, and stayed Wednesday night with friends. We spent all Thursday driving the length of Nebraska, and the kids were troopers, but I figured by Friday the kids would need a break, and so they did. So Friday afternoon was the Omaha zoo. In mid-December. Thirty degrees and spitting. And lo and behold, the Omaha zoo is about half indoor terrariums. There's a full indoor tropical building at eighty degrees and humid, with birds flying free. A full desert building. An aquarium nearly as good as Vancouver's. And we had it all to ourselves. We spent ten to fifteen minutes just sitting in the tunnel section of the aquarium, where all the fish swim over and around you, while our middle daughter fell in love with the sharks. We watched the bobcats and our youngest daughter watch each other with equal interest. We didn't even to get to the monkey house. (And the indoor sections were only half the zoo--the front half. The back half had all the large enclosures for things like elephants, giraffes, and zebras, and we didn't tackle those. I could easily have spent 2-3 days exploring Omaha's zoo.) We got each of the girls a stuffed animal from the gift shop and went on Friday evening much refreshed, and ready for two more days of driving. (Side note: one of the things I most appreciated about the Omaha zoo was that they don't just care for their animals--they care for yours too. As I noted, we were in the middle of a move when we stopped there, and had our cat sitting in her carrier in the truck. When my husband checked with the gate people to make sure that his admission stamp would get him in and out during the day so that he could check on the cat, they said, "Oh, just bring her inside to the kennels!" Apparently, the Omaha zoo has a number of large-dog sized kennels in the basement under their offices so that guests don't leave their dogs over-heating in the car during the summer. And what's good to keep a dog cool in the summer is even better to keep a cat warm in the winter. Kitty enjoyed a quiet nap away from the children for the afternoon.)
So this all brings me round, in a long, meandering way, to yesterday's disappointing visit to the South Bend zoo. We'd been going to go to Ft. Wayne's zoo, which I've heard is excellent, but it's not yet open for the season. So we drove the other way, to South Bend, and found . . . not much. Given how much I love to sit and watch the animals, I figured that even with a small zoo, we could burn most of an afternoon. But we'd seen everything in an hour and a half. It took longer to do the drive back and forth than it did to see everything the zoo had to offer. Part of that was that they had large number of the animals not out yet because the weather was too cold for them--but isn't having the indoor enclosures guest-accesible a pretty basic zoo thing these days? And a lot of the animals that were out, especially the bigger ones like the big cats, didn't look like happy animals. The didn't have enough space. They acted either neurotic (the frantically pacing leopard, and the camel chewing his wooden fence to tatters), or else bored. A lot of them were asleep. My youngest didn't even realize that she'd seen a bear because it was just a black blob in the corner. (Some excuse on that one anway--we learned that that bear is the oldest living in captivity . . . 33 years old, when that kind of bear lives to about 7 in the wild.) I drove home in the afternoon feeling uneasy about the fact that some of our money had gone to support an organization that doesn't do well what it's supposed to be doing. Talking to my husband about it yesterday evening, he said that he feels that way about most every zoo--that none of them do a good enough job with the animals, with the possible exception of San Diego's Wild Animal Park. I wouldn't go that far. But it has me thinking today about things like stewardship of the earth and the fact that we were meant to live with the animals from the beginning. They offer us friendship and a connection to God that we are supposed to have that our sin ruined. And how do we answer that need to be with them in a way that is fair to them? Maybe more later. This post now done due to chronic distraction. :)