Every day, on my drives to work, far out in Dakota County, I pass the sign marking the entrance to the Minnesota Zoo. Till last September, I’d suppressed the urge to yank the steering wheel left and head in for a day with the animals.
It’s a welcome and familiar beacon, that zoo sign on McAndrews Road. For so many years, when my three children were little, it signaled our arrival at our destination. In fact, “ZOO” was the first word each child learned to read, as my husband pointed out the word, highlighted in brown, on the highway signs that marked the route.
We lived in western Wisconsin, and on school vacations, our minivan made its way to Apple Valley, with Raffi singing “Baby Beluga” from the tape deck. We’d emerge from the van — the kids, Sarah, Kate and John, plus fold-up stroller, diaper bag, sippy cups, Cheerios in Zip-Loc bags — and make our way through the displays. I was at least as delighted as the kids. I loved this zoo for its expanses where animals can roam, for its choice of animals that are at home in the northern climate (no dank, dreary enclosures), and for its awareness of conservation.
We’d hike the trails, admiring the animals, like the delicate chevrotain with its big dark eyes and the lynx with its ear tufts. In the ZooLab, you could touch a snake or pet a chinchilla. At the bird show, raptors flew over your head, and the bird trainer narrated a story while Alex, the African grey parrot, made appropriate sounds — even an ambulance siren. One of my favorite memories is of an afternoon, gray and wintry outside, sitting on the floor by the coral reef display with my son, feeling tropical and peaceful, as the bright fish floated by.
Music lured us back
Fond memories, but I figured the Zoo days were long gone, as my last child had flown the coop. Then, late last August, that changed. I went with a friend to Music in the Zoo — the summer concert series in the bird-show amphitheater — to see the musician Dar Williams.
It’s a gorgeous setting for a concert — the sun falls as the trumpeter swans land on the little lake behind the stage. And a concert ticket grants you admission to the zoo starting at 4 p.m. So, before the concert, my friend and I toured the Grizzly Coast exhibit, where slick otters twirled like corkscrews through the water. A brown bear swam up to the glass, waving its huge padded paws and giant claws through the water.
That night Dar Williams sang her song “The One Who Knows.” In it, a mother tells her child, yet unborn, how she’ll show him the world.
You’ll fly away
But take my hand until that day.
So when they ask how far love goes
When my job’s done, you’ll be the one who knows.
I’d heard the song before, but this time the lyrics reverberated at my core, as my nature-loving daughter, who learned some of her environmentalism and love of animals at this very zoo, had flown to Africa 10 days previously, for two years as a forestry volunteer with the Peace Corps.
My concert companion was actually more enchanted by the zoo itself than by the concert. She hadn’t been there in 20 years but decided, after that night, to revisit a few more times on her own and is now a volunteer. She tells me there are plenty of adults, “regulars,” who come each morning for their daily constitutional among the greenery, the moose and the caribou.
Through her, a revelation
And through her example, I had the revelation: You don’t need a passel of kids to justify a trip to the zoo.
It was the week before Labor Day when I first visited the zoo on my own, a golden late summer day, the place crowded with children on their last week of vacation. Kids ran through the fountains that spray water up from the pavement and into the hot air.
I saw the summer exhibits in their waning days. On the Northern Trail were the African animals. Giraffes, zebras, gemsboks and emus shared a field — but just for a few more days before returning to warmer climes.
In the amphitheater I watched the World of Birds show, and there was an African grey parrot named Alex, doing a program that seemed awfully familiar. Turns out that Alex is 30 years old, and yes, he’s still helping the bird trainers tell the same story with the same sounds.
I walked through the butterfly exhibit, also in its last days, and an exotic one — bright blue with black stripes — lit onto my pants and held for a long time, as a little group of children gathered to watch. Heading back down the Tropics Trail, I could almost hear the echo of my children’s voices, feel the heft of the stroller as my two younger children squeezed in to ride, both at once.
Again, the echo of children
And finally, I stopped in the gift shop, again hearing my kids’ voices, debating what souvenir they would buy, examining everything: a long cuddly snake, a rubber tiger, pleading for this or that. Yes, I even missed that.
As I left the zoo, I thought again of the Dar Williams song, and my children far away, exploring, and the final lines of her song:
But sometimes I will ask the moon
When it shined upon you last
And shake my head and laugh and say
It all went by so fast.
I can so clearly picture Kate running down the Tropics Trail in her “101 Dalmatians” sweatshirt. Today, thanks partly to this place, a subscription to Zoobooks, a beloved toy brown bear, and some Junior Ranger badges earned at national parks, she’s living in an African hut, embarking on a career. John and Sarah’s idea of nature is a few sprigs of grass spied between squares of city pavement in Montreal and Philadelphia, but this place and our shared family adventures are an important part of their foundations, too.
In fact, it was Sarah who introduced me to Dar Williams in the first place — so it goes both ways, who teaches the world to whom.
I bought myself a zoo membership, and I stop there once each month after work. No negotiations, no saying I’m too busy. It’s my date with the animals, and I feel happy and peaceful among them. These animals, this landscape, I learned can still be mine, still nourish me through the changing seasons.
Barbara Tuttle, a freelance writer, lives in Minneapolis.