I used to have a real problem with zoos, and seeing animals in these artificial habitats still often makes me feel very uncomfortable, but after I had kiddos, I just couldn't continue to boycott them. I could have pulled it off with just Syd, perhaps, but Willow deeply loves animals, and deeply loves to observe them, and takes such joy from a zoo visit that I pretty much put my kid's happiness over my statement about animal welfare. I'd still never take her to one of those private wild animal park places, but for now I take the girls to lots of zoos and I don't bitch about it. Perhaps I'm raising animal rights advocates or conservation workers or the two people who will finally figure out how to save polar bears from extinction or stop rhino poaching--who knows?
I do, now, take special note of a zoo's efforts towards habitat construction, conservation of native animal habitats, and their adoption of orphaned or injured animals, but I also enjoy seeing animals that I've never seen in person before, such as these gorillas:
Dirt, huh? ...right.
And a great horned owl!
The Cincinnati Zoo has a great nocturnal animals section, in which they've gradually switched over the lighting system so that it's dark inside during the day, and the animals are awake and busy with their nocturnal animal business.
The petting zoo cracked me up, however, just because they have a whole section for Nigerian Dwarf goats and another habitat for red jungle fowl. A good friend of mine has a little hobby farm outside town, one that the girls and I occasionally visit (she's the generous benefactor of our chickens, for those of you following along at home). And know what she has on her little hobby farm?
Nigerian Dwarf Goats. Red jungle fowl.
The girls LOVED brushing the goats with these hairbrushes (must tell my friend about that...)--
--but when they asked for quarters to put in the goat kibble vending machine so that they could hand-feed the goats, I was all, "If you want to pay to feed goats, I'll drive you over to Mrs. Betsy's house when we get home. You can give her a quarter and she'll let you hand-feed HER goats."
We went back to the gorilla habitat later, when the grown-ups were off public view and instead we could see the new baby! She was abandoned by an inexperienced mother in another zoo, and was being fostered by a team of humans here:
As I write this, however, the baby is now off-exhibit, getting acquainted with a real gorilla foster mom.
One thing that I noticed at the Cincinnati Zoo is that almost all of the day camp kids on field trips there were HORRIBLE! Most groups of kids looked like older preschool, elementary, or young middle school-aged, and they were mostly escorted by, not the college kid staffers that I'm used to seeing at the camps around here, but middle-aged female staffers. The staffers by turns ignored the kids or yelled at them, shouting at them to hurry up or keep going--kind of defeats the point of being at a zoo, you know, if you're not allowed to stop and watch the animals. And the kids, over-stimulated and constantly frustrated and who knows what else, were AWFUL. They pushed and hit each other, screamed and banged on habitat walls, milled around on narrow walking paths and generally made nuisances of themselves.
While we were watching the baby gorilla, and the viewing was pretty crowded, one group of older preschool-aged campers came barreling up with their adults, who immediately took positions off in the background to stand and stare off into the distance while their charges raced up to the viewing fence. The first kids there claimed their spots, and all the other kids behind them screamed at them, pulled on them, tried to shove them aside, and tried to shove my kids aside, while the fence kids aggressively defended their territory. Nobody was watching the baby gorilla.
After a minute, one kid, apparently deciding she needed to go off-road to score a choice spot, climbed OVER the viewing fence and began to work her way past the other kids in the narrow space between the fence and the shrubs that hide the big concrete moat. Having seen all the YouTube videos of kids falling into zoo habitats, I was horrified. I looked over for the staffers, but they were off staring into space, not paying attention, and the ambient noise was too loud to call for them. I looked straight into the kid's eyes and said, "You need to come back to this side of the fence right now," but she totally blew off my random grown-up authority. I briefly imagined just hauling her back over the fence myself, but I didn't want to put my hands on her, so instead I just sort of hovered, helicopter parent-like, ready to snatch her back if she tried to step through the shrubbery and into the abyss. Thankfully, the staffers soon decided that the children, who still hadn't managed to settle down and actually look at the baby gorilla, had seen enough and started screaming at them to get over there and get going, etc.
If nothing else, the experience was quite educational for my sheltered little girls. They watched everything about all these day camp kids with big eyes, and for the longest time couldn't stop talking about how badly some kids behave and how some kids don't listen and how it's dangerous to break rules sometimes and why weren't those camp kids getting to have any fun? Why did those camp kids act so bad? Why were those camp kids hitting each other? Why didn't the grown-up stop that camp kid from pushing me? Why didn't those grown-ups let those kids watch the tigers?
Eye-opening stuff for two pampered little kids. Our family rule is that everybody gets to look at everything for as long as they like. That's why I bring my ipod, so that I can listen to RadioLab while my girls play "spot the salamander" for twenty minutes running--
--or squat and just stroke the turtle, stroke the turtle, stroke the turtle:
I did put my hands on a strange kid in this habitat. Just as the zookeeper was saying, "And if you're wearing brightly colored shoes or have painted toenails, watch out, because the turtles might nip at you," and as I was looking down to see if a turtle might take a bite of my girls' candy-colored Keens, I saw one of the turtles snap at a kid's bright pink flip-flop strap. She was right in front of me, so without thinking I grabbed her shoulders and pulled her back so the turtle couldn't get her toes. The goofy kid looked up into my face and laughed, and I said to her, "You just had an adventure!" She ran off to her mom, yelling to her, "I had an adventure! A turtle bit my shoe!"
We perhaps spent the most time in the zoo on the sidewalk in front of the cafe, where this peacock, who apparently has the run of the place, was hanging out and showing off:
People would walk by, stop and look, take a photo, and walk off again, but we camped there, first with both girls curious about the peacock, then with me and Syd sitting at an umbrella-covered table and watching Willow follow the peacock around and around and around, totally lost in it:
We spent similar ages in the bird habitat. I told the girls before we went in that I wasn't going to buy them any nectar (we have this at our zoo, so we've done it before), but as soon as we came through the door people were practically lining up to offer us the rest of their nectar cups that they were done with. When those nectar cups were drunk, the girls would walk around empty-handed for about two seconds before being offered another one that someone was finished with. It was excellent:
The kids have way more zoo stamina than me. I don't know what this exhibit below is, just that Sydney was mesmerized by it while I sat on a bench and rested my feet:
I practically dragged the kids over to the manatee habitat, though. I really wanted to see the manatees the last couple of times that we were in Florida, but didn't want to devote the time to trek down to the Everglades when we already had plenty to see and do.
And leaf cutter ants! I'd never seen these before, much less the elaborate habitat that was set up for them, with their tree at one end of the insect building, their nest at the other end, and a system of clear tubes connecting the two along all the visitor walkways:
As would become habit on this trip, we closed that zoo down, not leaving until we were practically kicked out, and even then dragging our toes and stopping for photos:
I drove two exhausted little girls to Columbus, Ohio, then, where we stayed the night, swam, ate sandwiches, and perhaps lost my planner (I haven't quite given up hope of recovering it, nor have I stopped fretting about it every single second of my life since).
Next stop: Hershey, Pennsylvania.