It starts with joy.
“Want to go to the zoo with Mommy today? Just Mommy and you?”
When you say these words, you can feel your smile. It begins in your diaphragm and slides up your throat until it blossoms in your eyes. It’s autumn — almost — and you’ve been waiting for this all summer.
“Uh huh,” he says, in that ADD way that two-year-olds agree with most things.
You get in the car and you drive. And drive. And drive. Because most of the people who want to go to the zoo don’t live anywhere near it, like you.
Arrive just before noon, pat yourself on the back for buying the “good” membership this year. Flash your card and cruise into the parking lot. Feel thankful you’re not one of those suckers who had to park at the other gate.
Get inside and your child immediately says, “Carousel!” Begin long trek around big fountain to the carousel, just inside the gate where all the suckers parked. Stand in line. Show card again, take tickets and smile.
“Which animal do you want to ride on?” Ask this with wonderment in your tone.
“Ummm, the gorilla!”
Delight in your child’s shared love of primates, then count how many carousel riders are standing in front of you in the line. There are twelve children, plus parents. Map out potential routes to gorilla. Vow to get there politely. Tell child you’ll carry him.
Gorilla achievement unlocked. He rides his favorite, and he’s still a little timid, waking up from the car ride. This is going to be a great day, you say in your head.I’m really glad he took a nap.
While the carousel goes ’round, you notice the typical-ginger-response-to-a-mosquito on the side of his head, and you brace yourself for all the dirty looks from other parents who will assume your child has chicken pox today.
Carousel ride ends and you ask your toddler, “What should we do now? Should we go to the playground? Ride the tram? See the dolphins? Get some food?”
He says, “Yeah!”
So you pick one of those suggestions and pretend he was responding to it. It’s time for overpriced zoo food and small cups without lids. Also, the straws are made out of paper, which means your toddler can and will eat it.
This is the face your kid makes when the blue cup doesn’t magically turn his lemonade blue:
Thankfully, you’ve bought him a $7 slice of pizza, and he is placated. He still looks like he’s contagious.
After your expensive lunch, you pose the question again. “What should we do now, honey?”
He has no answer. You make suggestions. He says yes to all of them. Erring on the side of caution (after the blue cup meltdown), you decide it’s best to just take him to the playground. Because sometimes reality just dicks you over, this makes your toddler unhappy, and he stops walking when he realizes you’re taking him to the park. He just stands there, facing the coolest playground ever, like this:
When you ask him what he wants to do instead, he says “Dolphins, Mommy.” And he says it like you’re the silliest/stupidest thing on the planet for not knowing.
So you start walking toward the underwater viewing, because you’ve been burned too many times before by your other kids in the oceanarium/humid dome where you might get splashed with the worst stuff in the world because your kid insists on sitting in the front row. Your toddler claims the dolphins are the other way.
The following is a photograph of my son grinning at seals while calling them dolphins:
Once that’s done, bring him to the big cats. Talk to him about how these big kitties are related to his little kitties at home. Wait for the look of awe, the “a-ha” moment to dawn in his eyes. Instead, he points out a rock that he really likes, seemingly unaware of or unimpressed with the snow leopard that could eat him on the other side of the glass.
Later, watch him climb on another rock that he really likes by the bears that he ignores. Listen to him call it The Elephant Rock. Be in awe of toddler minds.
Right now, you’re starting to get tired. You’ve walked — a lot. Your shoulders are beginning to tense up, and you would like to talk to a grownup. You are making this face all the time. You can feel it:
Decide you need a snack. Exercise zero judgment, because fuck it, you’re at the zoo. Give no thought to what the sugar will do to your self-esteem or your baby’s personality.
Now that your blood sugar and cholesterol have gone up, it’s time to relax at the family play zoo. The family play zoo has activities and toys. This will be good.
When you arrive, show your son the snake. Hold him up so that his head is level with the serpent. “No thank you,” he says. Marvel, momentarily, at his manners.Silently agree with his assessment of snakes.
Family play zoo has areas for play, soft areas where babies can roam. Except, your baby tops out the growth chart and looks like he has small pox today, and the helicopter parents are hovering. Silently call them pussies. Suspect your son is doing the same.
Maybe you need a nap.
Remove Giant Baby from presence of Inferior Ones, come upon this: a plot by the zoo to collect $100,000 in change every month from exhausted parents who no longer give a shit and just want their kids to stay in one place for a couple minutes. Give baby all of your change, one coin at a time, and pretend he’s learning about physics. Notice he makes your face.
When all the money is gone, take him to the plant room. The plant room is bliss. It’s filled with tropical plants that need constant watering. The zoo has placed a dozen misters on a low table and encourages children to spray them on the plants. The plant room is a brilliant way to extract free child labor from people who paid to get in.
Okay, that was jaded. The plant room really is cool, but because your baby is who he is, it soon becomes not enough to have access to water and 400 square feet of things he’s supposed to spray it on.
Now that your knee is wet, take your toddler to another part of the family play zoo. Stop along the way at the face-painting station. Know in your heart that other parents help their little ones and paint them up proper with zebra stripes and whiskers, but take advantage of the chance to sit while your baby colors on his face.
Once baby is done, follow his lead into the place with a toy stove and plastic food. Don’t question what this has to do with the zoo. Just roll with it. Repeatedly tell him to stop putting fake food in his mouth. Resign yourself to needing to use a sucker bulb to get snot out of his nose in approximately 48 hours.
Next stop is the pretend veterinarian office. Admire the frog x-rays on a light board and think about how metal the horns are. The pretend vet place is satisfyingly morbid. Hum along to Lost in the Supermarket. Wonder why The Clash is playing in family play zoo, then accept this sweet, sweet gift from The Universe and keep humming.
Once you pass The Dead Things, enter the vet’s office proper. It’s filled with ragged stuffed animals, kitty carriers, and toy syringes. Don’t even consider telling your child not to touch the plush bacteria farms, because he already put fake carrots in his mouth. It’s over.
Collapse in a chair against the wall and watch baby play. Observe other, older children in room. Feel temporarily smug, because it’s not your kid making dirty stuffed animals pretend-fart, then put yourself in check — it’s totally gonna be your kid in five years.
Eventually, fight your child out of the play zoo. Return to fresh air. Ride the tram, because you’re both exhausted, and your feet hurt, and he wants to ride the carousel again (you now know you are the sucker for parking on the opposite side from your toddler’s favorite attraction), and be thankful the zoo closes in less than an hour.