To someone who doesn’t know me, my aversion to crowded places full of loud people who are all standing in long lines might come across as introverted or anti-social. This, however, couldn’t be further from the truth. I think I’m a pretty affable guy, good at conversation, I’m okay to look at (no distracting disfigurations or hygiene issues), and just because I forgot your name 2 seconds after you introduced yourself doesn’t mean that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy whatever that it was we discussed. A better description would be that I’m “anti-obnoxious people” and it just so happens that places like bars, zoos, and theme parks are where these types gather ad-nauseam. My remedy for the prior is to just avoid them or drink to the level of blissful tolerance, however, I’ve learned this strategy is frowned upon at the latter.
There are out of body experiences in all dads’ lives where we can actually see ourselves saying something stupid as we’re saying it but we’re powerless to stop. As I watched myself suggest a dad/toddler trip to the zoo, I had such a moment. Before the “z” was out of my mouth, my fate was sealed. I now also had to explain the concept of the future to a toddler since the trip was a week away.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are some tips to help you not suck at the zoo:
Don’t eat at a restaurant first
And certainly don’t eat sausage gravy and biscuits. But if you do, eat close to home, and make sure to tie an unscheduled trip back to the house into potty-training. Win-win!
Get There Early
I mean empty parking lot, weird looks from drowsy staff as they get put on their uniforms, first people in line early. Annoying people sleep in (everyone knows that) and school groups don’t show up until around 10 and they force those poor kids to sit through 30-40 minutes of mind-numbing rules and orientation that really kills the zoo vibe they were feeling on the bus. So, theoretically, there are 2 blissful hours at the beginning of the day when you won’t feel the urge to push people into the gorilla pen.
Have a Plan
Now that it’s just you and the zookeepers, don’t waste time with the crap at the front of the zoo. “No, I don’t want you to take a picture of me and my kid, lady.” “Hey look, a leapord…cool…moving on.” “Wait…we can pet a stingray? Okay, we’ll stop for that.” Then head straight to the Tigers and work your way back toward the parking lot. It’s basically a reverse commute back to the car with cool shit along the way.
Don’t Promise Things That Don’t Exist
Maybe you get a mailer and it’s all about the new dinosaur exhibit coming to the zoo and you show it to your toddler and he loses his mind because next to peanut butter and jelly, and monster trucks, and robots, and Hot Wheels, dinosaurs are his favorite thing. And maybe they even have “Destination Dino” signage all around the zoo promoting the new exhibit. And maybe you should have looked at the mailer a little closer because maybe the exhibit doesn’t open until the 4th and you’re there on the 3rd. That’s a tough conversation to have with a toddler, but I find that pointing at the signage of a really cool dinosaur and saying “This is it!” in a really excited voice can do the trick just as well as the actual exhibit.
Bite Your Tongue and Gather Information
Inevitably, after they finish their well-balanced breakfasts of Mountain Dew and popsicles, the rednecks with their redneck babies will make their way to the zoo, and you will, inevitably cross paths. It’s important to remember that when you hear one of the parents say something like, “Y’all…my favorite part of the zoo is the koi ponds,” that you don’t stop, look at them, and ask, “Really? Not the tigers or elephants, or giraffes that you can actually feed, or the stingrays you can actually pet, or the endangered bonobos of which this zoo is one of only 9 in North America to house? You like the goldfish from the Japanese steak house the best?” That won’t help.
In moments like these, and there will be plenty, use what you’ve learned and put a little distance between your parties. You and your toddler will clearly be avoiding the Asian Bamboo Garden today. Other hot spots for annoying types include:
- Any exhibit with snakes or spiders which will incite them to loudly express their distaste for each and every snake and/or spider including “that one big ass snake” that they “seen on tv.”
- Any exhibit near ice cream
- Any exhibit that contains more than 5 different species which will require them to loudly, and almost definitely incorrectly, label the animals that they see despite the thoughtfully illustrated placard right in front of them.
There’s More to See Than Just the Animals
As your toddler enjoys pretending to be a monkey and eating gum he finds on benches, you’ll need a few activities to keep you engaged, lest you burn out early. I like to find at least one of the following as we explore.
- An over-cologned guy in an Affliction or Tapout T-Shirt who would clearly rather be at a strip club than at the zoo with his girlfriend’s kids
- A couple without kids, wearing traveler’s vests, hats with flaps to keep the sun off of their necks, binoculars, and a digital SLR with a 1000mm zoom lens.
- A school chaperone trying a little too hard to make something awesome seem boring with interesting facts and rules.
- The zookeeper who clearly gets high with the chimpanzees
- The overly animated mom who can’t use a normal tone of voice when talking to her kids about ANYTHING. She usually sits right behind me on the train so this one is pretty easy.
- The parent who insists that there be a correlation between every single animal and a Disney movie.
- A mom applying sunscreen to her kids like they’re about to embark on a Trans-Saharan expedition.
Ultimately, watching your child experience things that spark his imagination and that expand his perspective on all the cool things God thought up far outweighs the few patience-and-immune-system-testing hours you’ll actually be at the zoo. With a little preparation, a little creativity, and maybe a little Zanex, you too can suck a little less at the zoo.