Friday, September 4, 2009

A morning at the zoo

On Sunday morning we visited the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas. We're members of another zoo that has a reciprocal agreement with them, but on Sunday they were having a corporate-sponsored drive to recycle phone books. Joe's sister (at whose home our home is currently parked) planned the trip and provided our admission, as well as increasing the adult-to-child ratio to one.

One adult for each child is an advantage on any outing, particularly when there are so many ways to go, and we're satisfied to go at their pace. Even when we all head in the same direction, we spread ourselves along a series of exhibits like a slinky, the tail catching up periodically, but sometimes leap-frogging past the head to become the advance party. No hurry, no waiting. A good way to do the zoo.

The boys each grabbed a map and started pointing out the animals they most wanted to see. Karl (the youngest, five years old) appointed himself leader and guide and showed us, on the map and by pointing, exactly how we were going to go to the petting zoo to feed the goats. I had no idea Karl could read a map, and at first I thought he was working completely from memory of the zoo's layout. But he seemed to be able to relate the map to the real world whenever we had a choice to make. Neat.

Our kids have always had a lot of interest in animals. I credit The Kratt Brothers with planting the seed of animal adventure. Drawn in by the Kratts' engaging personalities and informal style, the boys have watched hours of VHS and DVD copies of their PBS and National Geographic shows. Besides learning a respectful and curious attitude about animals, they've learned loads of facts about wild animals and pets, common species and endangered ones, and some animals I had never heard of. A stuffed genet in the Smithsonian was instantly recognizable to a then six-year-old Billy, while I struggled to classify it among animals I could name. My boys, they love the animals.

We were lucky to see two relatively rare sights on this zoo visit, both in the North American Prairie area. A beautiful white-tail buck was coming out of velvet, his antlers covered in blood with tatters of the nourishing skin still hanging off of them. I had never seen this phase of the antler cycle. Another patron told us that we were lucky to catch it because it takes only a day or two. It was an opportunity to note to the kids that bleeding isn't always a sign of weakness or trauma, and that vessels can be grown for a specific purpose then shut off when no longer needed. A specific bit of wonder illustrating a general concept. Double-neat.

Nearby in the reptile exhibit, we saw that the massasauga had an inert white rodent in its cage. We stalled there a few minutes, hoping this fresh kill was about to be eaten. Sure enough, after a false start on the wrong end, the snake worked its jaws around the rat's head and began to encase the rat, rather the way you would pull on a snug sweater. If you had no arms. And you were the sweater. I didn't take pictures -- I rarely do when I'm really interested in what's going on.

We contrasted how we get food into our bellies with how this snake was doing it. We speculated about how eating might affect the snake's breathing. (I just realized I'd forgotten to look this up.) Other patrons came, gaped, exclaimed, chatted, and went on as the meal progressed (maybe ten minutes). Billy and Leo had seen enough by the time the mammal was halfway inside the reptile, and ran on to the next exhibit. But Karl insisted on watching to the end.

Eventually the tip of the tail poked out like a long pink tongue alongside the narrower, flicking black tongue. Karl loved telling the folks just arriving exactly what that wormlike thing was! And then it was gone, the bolus a barely noticeable anomaly between the head and the thick body. I admired Karl's patience and I enjoyed watching the entire process. I probably would not have taken the time without his insistence. Sometimes, oftentimes, the kids are the teachers. Triple-neat.

The best thing about having a zoo membership is that you don't have to do the whole thing in one day. When tempers get short and appetites grow teeth ... you can be done with it. Even if it's only been a couple of hours, and you've only seen a third of the zoo. There's always next time. And there's always another zoo, or a movie, or a tidepool, or a forest ...

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