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5 Rules for Taking Your Grandchildren to the Zoo

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

I just start with the “OhShhhii…t” when I remember I have four grandchildren in the back seat. But the stoplight had turned red, and my van was going much to fast. What warned me about the red light was my copilot sitting in the passenger seat. She was actually paying attention while I was daydreaming. My eyes were open, but at that very moment, I was trying desperately to get a grandchild out of a bear enclosure at the zoo. She managed to squeeze her thin frame through the enclosure rails, stand at the edge of a rock embankment, and then fell maybe 15 feet to a grassy knoll.

My mental departure from the task at hand, safely driving my van with four grandchildren strapped into the rear seats, into the mental anguish of a looming disaster was possibly influenced by reading and seeing pictures of individuals either falling into the cages of dangerous carnivorous animals or joining them willingly. I say ‘willingly’ because some, if not eaten, have said that God or some higher authority told them to do it. Some might have even thought they possessed ‘bear whisperer’ powers. But the visual images preventing me from seeing the light turning red is that of my grandchild laying at the edge of a small pond and a big burly brown bear staring at her on the other side. Can bears swim?

So real was this brief mental detour, I remember precisely the problem I was desperately trying to solve when my wife yelled for me to stop. Can I find a way down the embankment, snatch my little comatose 5-year-old granddaughter, scale the embankment to safety before the bear perceives us as dinner or a threat to the cub who is nowhere to be seen? Before I slammed on the breaks, I was making millions of calculations. Can I squeeze through the fence? No. Can I climb over? Possibly. Can I jump the 15 feet to the grassy edge? Maybe if I slide partway.

But what if the bear decides to make the 10-foot swim and join us on the other side? Just me and the bear and my granddaughter. Then the looming red stoplight brought everything to a screeching halt. My copilot braced herself, and all four of my grandchildren yelped in unison. The van finally shuttered to a complete stop. The tires protested with a little smoke and the smell of burning rubber, but the fella wearing fluorescent green spandex and an orange helmet and riding a skinny little 10-speed bike was not amused. He had just entered the crossing as we were smoking our way halfway through it. The look of contempt he had for me was only exceeded by the look my copilot was giving me. For a moment, I thought I might be safer in an enclosure with a big brown bear.

Rule Number One: Always avoid reading about zoo accidents before going to a zoo.

Old Biblical shepherds always carried what was called a ‘staff.’ No, it was not an infection, or a group of office assistants, but rather a tall stick with a hook at one end. They could use it to protect their flock by pulling a small lamb back to safety if teetering on a rocky outcropping. With four grandchildren as my flock, I was hoping to be able to rent one. A whole day at the zoo with four little lambs required a staff.

The ticket taker was, in retrospect, very patient. She explained that she could not supply a staff, but we could hire a personal tour guide for some dollars per hour. I then had to explain what kind of staff I wanted, which I don’t think she ever fully understood. She very nicely said that folks carrying around sticks at the zoo might freak out the animals. Might make then feel unsafe. I did have to agree with her on that point. The pink flamingos might all take flight if we show up with something that looked like a long hooked neck.

Having purchased the tickets, we were now safely inside the zoo full of bears, lions, baboons, hyenas, and laughing dogs and venomous snakes. I decided that it was time for a family meeting. Meetings with grandchildren are best accomplished if they are focused on slicking up the sides of a soft ice cream cone. So we find the ice cream vendor and have a meeting.

“Kids, I am staffless. So I will need your cooperation. I only have two eyes, two arms, and a leg and a half, and you all have 16 arms and legs. You’ll need to use them to stay near me, or you’ll get lost. If you are lost, and they shut the zoo for the night, they let all the animals out to unwind after a hard day's work and do what animals do, which is play and fight and look for desert. They might think you would make a tasty little ice cream cone.” With that, they all look at me with disbelief then go back to licking and dripping. “Don’t worry about the drips kids. The aardvarks will clean that up tonight.”

Maybe there was a very outside chance that grandpa was right. Maybe the lost do spend the night in a zoo. And that is perhaps why we stuck together like dried ice cream to hair. After a visit to the lions, they were dern near hugging me. I was nearly in tears; it felt so good to be needed... like a shepherd.

Rule Number Two: Always remember to take along your staff when taking your grandchildren to the zoo.

With kids, you never know what animals will be popular and which ones are uninspiring. But then again, have you ever grown tired looking for the snakes in a snake exhibit? Or spiders or lizards? They are either completely hidden or don’t exist. Maybe the zoo doesn’t know the viper escaped or became extinct. That is not the problem with pink flamingos.

My flock loved the pink flamingos. “Grandpa, why are they pink?” one asks me. “Because Darwin screwed up, dear. You see, most evolutionary theorists believe that all life evolved and adapted to give it the best chance of survival. For nearly every species, the best strategy was to blend in. But the flamingos, all bright and pink, stick out. You’d have to be a blind baboon not to see a flock of pink flamingos from some distance. Darwin must have considered giving up when he came across these birds, don’t you think?”

“I suppose,” my little nine year says before joining the others. He’s learned not to believe much of what I say. Smart kid.

Since the flamingos are a big hit, I find a bench and watch. Soon my flock is imitating the flamingo flock. My seven-year-old is attempting to balance on one leg while his other skinny leg is tucked in tight, just like a flamingo. Another attempts to walk the flamingo walk while the four-year-old tries without success to elongate her neck to put a big ole curve in it. Fortunately, the pinky’s take no offense, and I’m left wondering which flock should be behind the fences.

Rule Number Three: Always find a bench at the pink flamingo exhibit and watch the homo-sapiens.

At least to this one middle-aged woman, I might have looked like a zoologist. While admiring a group of gorillas, she stepped next to me and asked, “What do you think they think of us humans?” Taken aback by being asked a question, an intelligent question by an adult no less, I gave her my best ‘why are you asking me’ look. Do I look like I work here? Because the question didn’t require a technical answer but rather an opinion on gorillas’ thinking, I decided to attempt an answer.

“Assuming they think, I think they find us curious,” I start as if I have given it serious consideration.

“Well, look at them. These gorillas look right back at us. Surely they must think something,” the woman’s curiosity is agitating her a bit.

“What do you think they are thinking?” I ask. Clearly, she has an opinion on the subject.

“I think they think humans are stupid,” she starts. “Look at the big fella over there, the one with a bit of a potbelly. There he sits all happy without a worry in the world. He looks at us and sees a bunch of harried, worried, narcissistic, dysfunctional hedonists,” she finishes slowly, shaking her head with some despair.

“Mam, I’m sorry, but my blood sugar is a bit whacked. I need to find some cotton candy. Good talking with you.”

Rule Number Four: Avoid looking like a zoologist when visiting a zoo with your grandchildren.

Eventually, the best drug known to humankind, perhaps to all species, takes effect, and all the kids are sleeping. Cotton candy should be available by prescription only. Of course, the benefit accrues to me as I can now make the hour drive home in peace. Even my copilot is weary and nodding off.

Once on the freeway, I can no longer resist daydreaming. For some silly reason, I decide to dream of what a better zoo might look like. I came up with a few improvements that I wrote down when I got home.

  1. Consider a ‘human’ exhibit and place it next to the chimpanzee exhibit. Zoologist could then publicly debate whether humans are evolving or devolving.

  2. Consider how best to incentivize primates who learn how to fling poo (free cotton candy perhaps). Then make it permissible for us humans to fling it back. With that kind of specie on specie conflict, a reality TV show would become an instant international hit, and attendance would soar. You may need to launch a capital campaign to raise money for an amphitheater with seating and plexiglass deflectors. Add on revenue sources would be a line of chocolate bars, a board game for at-home play, and a line of ‘poo’ guns. I don’t want to give humans the edge, but you know what they say; the bigger gun always wins. That is evolutionary progress on display.

  3. Since the donkey and elephant represent political parties and considering our deep partisan divide, devise ways to have these two animals in cages fighting to near-death (use fake blood, etc). Make these fights available on social media to encourage public shaming, de-platforming, foul language, and digital poo throwing. Again I think digital poo throwing could be monetized by allowing for commercial sponsors. ‘This poo sponsored by….’

Rule Number Five: Remember to Call the Zoo Before Going to Make Certain the Animals are all Wearing Masks.

Have any more ideas? Zoos are mostly closed now so they have time to ponder our suggestions. Email me at

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