It’s All Happening at the Zoo

Zoo: An excellent place to study the habits of human beings.

-- Evan Esar

'I dreamt about him again last night," Jenny said during a lull in our fragmented conversation.

"Yeah? What happened?" I asked, stealing my eyes away from the road to meet my sister's with a look I hoped would express my eagerness to hear about her dream.

"Well, in the beginning Peter was thin and frail, but by the end of my dream, he was gordo." It took me a second to place the name, but after a moment I realized Jenny was speaking of Peter Parker, the most recent of her hamsters who have "made their passing."

"He gave me a look that said, 'I'm okay now,' and I was happy. That's when I woke up."

As a child, Jenny would pray to Precious, but I was never sure which one -- seven different hamsters inherited that name before Spike, Popcorn, and Peter arrived on the scene. At first, I had thought she was praying for Precious, but then one night I overheard her whispered words before she fell asleep in the room we shared: "Precious, please let me play good in soccer tomorrow." I was tempted to make fun of her for it, but she had sounded so serious that I was half-convinced Precious might have some pull up there. Though I've blocked it from my memory, I feel certain that I have, at least once, given deity status to one of my rabbits.

Jenny is the only person I know who is geekier about animals than I am: beyond a simple appreciation, her fondness overflows into the realm of religion, which is why I asked her to join me at the zoo for a day of practice with my new camera. After much research, David located the most "Barb-a-licious" camera, a Canon SD300 Digital Elph -- small, sleek, silver, fabulous. I was itching to try out my new toy, and though I had purchased my zoo membership last August, I hadn't made time to visit the majestic, exotic, and comical animals.

We were there before 9:00 and had to wait behind pushy, socially inept zoo members. You know, those folks who don't miss a day for fear their "friends" -- namely, monkeys and apes -- would forget them. These frequent zoogoers pride themselves on knowing more about the animals than the zookeepers. As the masses gathered, we were pushed closer to the monkey lovers. I could overhear two of them debating on the mood of a particular chimp.

"She'll probably come right to the glass to say hello," said the one in the glasses. "No," responded the one in the silly hat, "I think she'll wait for a while to feel us out from afar. Then she'll say hi."

To keep Jenny from freaking out over all these strangers nudging into her personal space, I shared the story about the time I was insulted by an orangutan. "She flipped me off," I said to a disbelieving Jenny. "Seriously. The female orangutan looked up at me, locked eyes, and then lifted her middle finger. Kip was there, he can attest to it."

"Come on," Jenny said, sticking her elbows further out to keep tourists from crowding closer.

"And here's the clincher," I continued. "I know a guy who works here, and he told me that there was a trainer here who taught the orangutans how to flip people off."

Before Jenny could question this latest bit of information (all of it true) the gates opened and we entered the world-famous San Diego Zoo.

"Let's get a map," Jenny suggested.

"They're back at the entrance...you want to go back there?" She looked at the tourists piling through the turnstiles and shook her head in fear. "There are plenty of signs," I said, not wanting to ford the river of zoo-zealots any more than she did.

We walked straight ahead into the aviary, where we hesitated for a moment, staying absolutely still in hopes that a bird might land on us before it dawned on me that the longer we stood, the higher our chances of being shat upon. I suggested this possibility to Jenny, and she led our speed-walking escape.

We were both eager to get to the pandas. The last time I'd gone to the zoo there was a recently born baby panda named Me-Me or Ling-Ling, and I refused to wait in line with the hundreds of non--San Diegans the fuzzy little bear drew to the exhibit.

I had never seen a panda in person. Signs surrounding us asked that we remain silent; pandas are sensitive creatures. But the signs were unnecessary. As soon as we saw the panda, Jenny and I were speechless. We shot pictures of one panda sipping water. I took a video (yes, my camera can do that too) of the panda eating bamboo by holding the shoots between its opposable-thumbed paws and ripping the bamboo apart with its mouth. Eager to discuss the bear, we returned to a noise-friendly area.

Our conversation consisted of two words:

"Wow," I said.

"Yeah," Jenny answered.

We were interrupted by a pair of ducks and instinctively followed them. It seemed odd to see these ducks waddling around the pavement, far from any water in sight. Both Jenny and I had our cameras out and cornered the ducks so they would stop for a moment and pose for us. Aside from a three-year-old who was dragged away by her mother, my sister and I were the only people in the entire zoo who seemed taken with the ducks. I think it had something to do with the fact that they were so touchable, not kept away from us by glass, wire, or a moat.

The ducks led us toward some very stinky monkeys. I was reminded of my nephew's diaper (minus the pleasant powdery scent), and my face involuntarily scrunched up in disgust.

"We can't stay over here; these are the ones that fling their shit at you," Jenny said. I held my breath and stood between the cages. "Really, Barb, that's why it smells. Ohmygod, that one's gonna do it! I'm getting out of here!" She sprinted away with her hands on her head -- a sort of shit shield, perhaps. Her paranoia was contagious -- the image of poo flying at us motivated me to follow her quickly back to the main path.

We spent so much time with the meerkats I wouldn't have been surprised if the tour-bus driver had mentioned us as part of the display. If there was ever a rodent to anthropomorphize, it is the meerkat.

These sociable mongooses can stand on two feet, and the way they quickly turned their noses up in the air made me think of a sommelier suddenly detecting the scent of 1959 Chateau Lafite Rothschild in a dive bar.

Jenny wanted nothing to do with the camels. As we walked by the camel enclosure, one of the beasts was blessing the dirt with a steady stream of piss.

"This is disgusting," Jenny whispered. Don't stop; keep walking."

"Look, that one's humps are sagging to the side," I pointed out.

"Eww! Keep walking. I don't need to see that; it's gross." She was still whispering. I didn't need to ask her why she kept her voice so low. To me, it was obvious: she didn't want to offend the camel, and I didn't blame her.

We headed past the exit to the reptiles but gave up looking at ancient tortoises to chase lizards up and down the trellis outside the restrooms. There were so many of them, and I was able to touch one! Jenny got a picture of my fingertip in front of the lizard's mouth; the miniature dragon was no longer than my finger.

We headed back toward the koalas, reading each other's minds. Our father's favorite animal is the koala. For the second year in a row, his business took Dad out of the country on St. Patrick's Day, and for a New York Irishman, this is not a good thing. So Jenny and I thought we'd take pictures of koalas and e-mail them to him. Not that they have anything to do with being Irish, but we were convinced that pictures of his favorite cuddly animal would put a smile on his face.

Jenny had made a point to get as many animal ass shots as she could for her boyfriend, Brad. Due to a lack of cooperation on the animals' part, she ended up with only a handful of exotic butts for the humorous slide show she was planning. Of all the animals I'd seen that day, Jenny was my favorite.

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