Tuesday, August 26, 2008

What I Did On The First Day of School

Did I mention? That today was the first day of school? Have I made that clear? Not that I'm happy about it or anything. . .

So what did I do with the family gone. Did I run around and clean up all the messes from the summer? Did I run 47 loads of laundry just because I could? Did I get out and pull weeds from the sadly neglected garden?

Of course not! It was a gorgeous day--bright and clear, with a lovely breeze and so I jumped into my little car and went to the zoo.

There are two zoos here. The Minnesota Zoo is where we usually go--it's large, it's glamorous, it's a zoo that exists not just to introduce people to animals, but to help preserve endangered species by participating in breeding programs and international efforts. Today, I went to the other zoo.

The Como Zoo lies inside the city limits of St. Paul, and has a humble beginning. It was started as a deer park when someone donate a pair of deer to the city. I went there often when the girls were little: it was free, it had a sea lion show, it had many different kinds of animals in an area easily managed by little legs. While it no longer showed animals in iron cages on concrete slabs, you could see those old cages still attached to one of the education buildings.

When my girls were little, there was a rickety carnival that set up on the edge of the park, run by the kind of carnies you thought only existed in the movies. These (mostly) men were tough and grizzled, tattooed and dried out. Their skin was dark from the sun, and possibly also from the thousands of cigarettes they smoked. The rides ranged from toddler-level to teen-level, although there were only a few of each kind. Everything rattled, and shed paint flakes, and had the eerie aura of being only half real--you could wake up one morning and it would all be gone, with only grease spills and trampled grass to show it had been there.

About five years ago, the city ended its contract with the carnies, and built its own rides. The first year this happened, my kids were disappointed, as all the new rides were too small and too tame for them. With the loss of the rides, we tended not to go to that zoo any longer, becoming members of the newer, more glamorous zoo. I was not prepared for what I saw when I went there today.

A great deal has changed in the last five years! The rides area, called "Como Town" has added back many of the old carnie rides, but with new and shiny bright equipment. It has added places to climb and dig, rides that require pedalling to make it work, and a sort of go-cart track that is used to teach kids traffic safety. Almost everything has an educational component, and now it's larger than the old carnival ever was, with more food, more guest services, and more restrooms, all brighter and cleaner than before.

Como Zoo has also opened an enormous Visitors' Center, which provides a clear entry point, and offers wheel chairs and strollers and clean and lovely bathrooms, as well as a gift store that looks like it actually is profitable! The polar bear exhibit has been closed, and the bears sent to another zoo while a new habitat is being built. This is a wonderful thing, since the old space was terribly small, made mostly of concrete terraces, and the bears tended to swim in the tiny pool in mind-numbing circles.

Even the Primate House has expanded, with at least four new species of monkeys and lemurs, with several updated habitats. Yes, the older exhibits remain, and seem a bit small for the animals, especially the giraffes. But surrounded as they are with all the new construction, they no longer feel tired and old, but rather temporary and soon to be remodeled and expanded.

This is only to the good, and I highly enjoyed my day at the zoo. Although I was the only person there who didn't have at least two kids under the age of 10 with me.

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