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Friday, November 24, 2017

Thankful for the Zoo

It might be an oversimplification, but an argument could be made that I became a zookeeper so that my dad and his siblings could better appreciate their pumpkin pie.

I should probably unpack that for a moment.

Growing up, I saw my mother's side of the family fairly regularly, but only saw my father's side on a few holidays - mostly Christmas Eve and Thanksgiving.  They lived in the middle of the city in an old neighborhood... not so far, as it happened, from the city zoo.  Back in those days, the zoo was open to the public on Thanksgiving.  That situation has since changed, to my disappointment but, I'm sure, to the delight of the non-animal care staff, who now have a day they can spend with their families, instead of waiting around for the half dozen visitors or so that would show up that day.

With the zoo being so close, and with most of my father's siblings having memberships, it became customary to eat Thanksgiving dinner, then go to the zoo for a stroll to burn off a few calories and settle digestion, all in an effort to make room for dessert when we returned.  It must have worked.  I don't ever remember anyone coming back from the zoo and being too full for pie.  That being said, I don't remember anyone who didn't go to the zoo not having room for pie either...

I went to the zoo a lot as a kid, but the Thanksgiving visits were always my favorite.  The late November weather was perfect for most of the animals - not yet cold, but crisp, the kind of air that makes you feel energized just walking out your door.  Apparently it had that impact on the animals as well; creatures that would be melting balls of sleeping fur during the summer visits were now active and playful.  It didn't hurt that we also largely had the zoo to ourselves - no jostling crowds, no glass-banging, no screaming.  There was actually time to stand still and watch things unfold.  Some of my best memories of zoo animals (as a visitor, at least) came during those visits -  a snow leopard stalking an unwary squirrel that was obliviously feeding in its enclosure, or a chimpanzee climbing to the tallest structure in its habitat, then sprawling out in the sun.  I once spent several minutes watching a hippo drink - I don't know why, but the sight of an animal that spends most of its time completely submerged in water actually drinking fascinated me.

I loved the zoo as a kid.  So did most of my friends and classmates, especially when it was presented in the form of a field trip, a break from scholastic routine.  I sometimes wonder if those Thanksgiving visits, however, are what started to tip me over from casual enthusiast to future professional.  They gave me a glimpse of the zoo and its animals that none of my friends ever saw - a private, intimate view of a world full of exciting animals.

Those late fall walks shaped my view of zoos and animals, and made me decide to make them a permanent part of my life.  And the pumpkin pie afterwards never tasted better...

Happy Thanksgiving!

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