Note: I think open letters are dumb, but, lately, everyone writes them, so I’m going to write one too. Enjoy my fury. Just kidding, everyone knows I suck at expressing anger.
An Open Letter to the Nashville Zoo:
I tried not to like you. The only reason I visited you was for my toddler son, Henry. He needs to learn about the animal kingdom, and you are the only place nearby offering this service. What’s my problem with you? Truth be told, you depress me. Large animals held captive in confined spaces sadden me. Call me a “bleeding heart,” if you like. Free the beasts, I say. Give them the wilderness they deserve to roam. Okay, I’ll step off my soap box.
You probably think I have too much time on my hands if I am writing you an open letter. I know there are bigger problems in the world. Listen: I understand you provide an educational tool. I get it. How else do we to teach children about saddle-billed storks and alpacas? I appreciate you introducing my child to meerkats, but that doesn’t mean I have to like you, and don’t expect me to purchase your merchandise. Although, I admit your sleek, yellow logo with the giraffe silhouettes looks snazzy and its hard to resist your ALL DAY ICEE for $7.45.
I “bit the bullet” and brought Henry to your gates this past summer. We arrived at 9am because we roll on a toddler schedule (if you opened at 6:30a.m. it would fit our schedule better). My intitial fear was the possibility you might put my son in a cage because his behavior often resembles a wild animal. Just in case, I strapped him tightly to the stroller to limit his movement. Thank you for not caging him.
Okay, let’s get down to business. Let me frog-march you through our day:
9:15a.m. The goats start the party. Henry releases a high-pitch squeal, rapidly waves his finger, and struggles to escape my arms. His feet kick before hitting the ground. Grabbing my finger he directs me to the Nigerian dwarf goat. Preferring an eye-to-eye encounter, he squats and stares at the sun-bathing goat. Squeals and finger-waving abound. His eyes risk popping out of his head. To match his enthusiasm, I squat, examine the tan and black face, and run my fingers over the goat’s coarse hair. Henry giggles. We visit each goat in the Critter Encounter Area, observing older children groom the goats with plastic brushes. We learn the hooved creatures contain a four-chamber stomach allowing them to regurgitate food and rechew to prevent waste. Who knew goats are a model of efficiency? Why didn’t you tell me sooner they have been domesticated for 10,000 years? Holey moley! Before exiting, Henry runs circles and screams in the pen. Poor animals. They deserve overtime pay.
9:45a.m. The Caribbean flamingoes huddle in the lagoon. I hold Henry, arms wrapped around his waist, above the railing. He closes one eye and squints the other to avoid the sun. A large group (maybe 20-30) of the pink birds gather in the corner of the lagoon nearest us, while the rest plod, individually, through the water, heads down, searching the lagoon floor. Their rod-like legs and s-shaped necks set them apart from the average bird. It blows my mind that flamingoes, during mating season in the wild, gather in colonies ranging from 5,000 to 100,000. Whoah.
A pair of flamingoes, in the center of the group, dance around one another, snapping their heads back-and-forth. They squabble like an old married couple. Henry’s wandering eyes focus on the dispute. Back and forth they snap their beaks trading insults. The flamingoes immediately surrounding them squawk causing the next layer in the group to sound off creating a chorus of squawking rippling through the colony. Henry extends his tiny finger to point at the dramatic birds and glances back at me for an explanation. “They are mad because they were forced to move from South Florida to Tennessee,” I say. He stares at me as if I am speaking nonsense. The squabble continues for a few minutes eventually dying down, so we move on to the bamboo trail.
10:00a.m. Henry toddles down the sidewalk inspecting the bamboo that creates a canopy blocking the blazing sun. The koi swimming in the fake stream, winding around the walkway, draw him down the path. He sticks his head between the rails to watch the fish circle in the water. On the trail, we see a red-ruffed lemur, clouded leopard, and yellow-back duiker. Actually, I watch the lemur, while Henry admires the floodlights hidden in the shrubbery; the artificial lights are more interesting to him than an exotic animal from another continent. I could have taken him to the lighting section of the hardware store. Whatever. It’s time to visit the African porcupine.
Let’s get something straight: African porcupines are cooler than North American porcupines. There is a big difference between the two, like the difference between a sedan and a monster truck. Okay, I exaggerate, but the African porcupine is my new favorite mammal. I’m not sure what that says about me. I don’t care, mostly because the quills on the African porcupine are rad. The lengthy, black-and-white striped quills attach to the African porcupine’s rear like a fierce war bonnet. If a African porcupine receives a threat, the quills raise and it walks backwards towards the aggressor giving off the appearance of a larger creature. Awesome! By the way, I just thought of a genius idea: I plan to dress Henry as a African porcupine for Halloween. Don’t tell my wife.
10:30a.m. The Shell Station, an “interactive tortoise exhibit,” buzzes with kiddos. Two dozen tortoises calmly crawl on wood chips ignoring the sugar-crazed kids stomping in their home. Tweet this: #Prayforthetortoises. Henry scans the station with a stunned face. He struggles to makes sense of the moving shells, so he pats a tortoise on the back to make sure he is not hallucinating.
“How old are these turtles,” I ask? The young man supervising the exhibit sighs. “These are tortoises,” he says. His tone suggests he is not impressed with me. Yet, he gladly provides me the detailed story of the Sulcata tortoise. “One minute,” he says. In mid-conversation, he speed walks to the far side of the station to flip over an upside down tortoise. The children clap. He is the hero of Shell Station.
Henry explores the station and greets each turtle-oops, I mean tortoise- with a pat on the shell. All is well with the plant eating reptiles, until he attempts to ride a large tortoise like a horse. Yikes! It’s time to leave when toddlers hitch rides from reptiles.
11:00a.m. We exit the zoo. Daddy needs more coffee. We hit the Hardee’s drive-thru and head home for the sacred hour called nap time.
While Henry dreams of goats, I develop a persuasive argument to convince my wife an African porcupine costume is an awesome idea. Okay, enough about African porcupines. So, this is the part where I own up to the fact you completely won me over this summer. I admit it. The Nashville Zoo rocks! You had me at African porcupine. Sorry, I had to slide that comment in before I finish writing. Because you are amazing, Henry and I now dedicate one day a week to visiting you. Zoo Fridays! After I get coffee flowing through my system, we load up our Subaru to explore your amphibians, fish, reptiles, mammals, and birds. Today, we look forward to visiting your new baby giraffe, Enzi. Thanks Nashville Zoo!
Billy Doidge Kilgore
P.S. I included a picture of the African Porcupine.