9:00a.m. The black python turns its curved head and stares at me, scales shining, while resting in a coil above the urinal. Henry, folded in my arms, points and says, “snake, da da, snake.” Holy Moley. That is a snake! It coils tighter and raises it head, tongue slipping in-and-out. My eyes follow the python as it climbs a smooth, brown piece of wood revealing a white pattern on its belly. It turns again when it reaches the stone backdrop. I am mesmerized by the fierce stripes above its mouth. The python jerks towards us, weaving its head through the air, and halts to slither across the glass. My heart accelerates. I hear water rushing. Wait. Why is water rushing? I look down. Henry is yanking the urinal level up-and-down, water rises to the edge of the porcelain. I restrain his hands, zip my fly, and dart to the sink. While scrubbing my hands, I glance one more time at the python. He retreats to the corner of the aquarium.
Outside the bathroom, the sun is blazing at the Nashville Zoo. Waves of heat roll off the pavement. A crowd of sweaty, oily visitors maneuver around one another. Floppy sun hats. Kids on leashes. Double Strollers. And a long line of children wearing matching blue shirts. Henry and I squeeze past them to the entrance gate.
I don’t want to be here. The only reason I came is to introduce Henry to the animal kingdom. How else do we to teach children about saddle-billed storks and alpacas? Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the access to meerkats, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Large animals confined to small spaces depresses me.
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. His eyes risk popping out of his head. Squeals and finger waving. I squat and 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, grooming the goats with plastic brushes. We learn the hoofed creatures contain a four-chamber stomach allowing them to regurgitate food and rechew to prevent waste. Who knew goats are a model of efficiency? They have been domesticated for 10,000 years! 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 above the railing and he closes one eye and squints the other to avoid the sun. A large group of the pink birds (maybe 20-30 flamingoes) gather in the corner of the lagoon nearest us, while the rest plod, individually, through the water, heads down, searching the lagoon floor.
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 surrounding flamingoes squawk causing the next layer in the group to sound off creating a chorus rippling through the colony. Henry extends his tiny finger and glances back at me for an explanation. “They are mad because they were forced to move from South Florida,” I say. He stares at me as if I am speaking nonsense.
I study their rod-like legs and s-shaped necks, which set them apart from the average bird. It blows my mind that flamingoes, during mating season, gather in colonies ranging from 5,000 to 100,000. Whoah.
10:00a.m. Henry toddles down the bamboo trail. I quickly become a fan of the trail because the canopy blocks the blazing sun. Henry studies koi swimming in a fake stream, winding around the walkway. He sticks his head between the rails to watch the fish circle in the water. We follow the bright fish on the trail. They lead us to a red-ruffed lemur, clouded leopard, and yellow-back duiker. I track the lemur hidden a tree, while Henry admires the floodlights hidden in the shrubbery; he finds the artificial lights more interesting than an exotic animal from another continent. 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. If I had to describe the African porcupine with one word it would be: ferocious. By the way, 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. #Prayforthetortoises. Henry scans the station with a stunned face. He struggles to make 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 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.
At dinner, my wife and I sit down with Henry at the table.
“How was the zoo?” she asks.
“Do you know that possums have pockets?” I say.
“What?” she says.
“They are marsupials, like kangaroos.”
“Their babies rest in their pouch and live on their own when they are four inches long.”
“Also, possums wander their entire lives, they don’t stay in one place.”
“They only live three to four years.”
“How did you become such a possum expert?”
“The zookeeper. She let us play with a possum.”
“It sounds like you are a fan of the zoo.”
“Yep, We are going back next week.”