A day at the zoo

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When I was a little kid, my parents took my sisters and me to the Kansas City Zoo all the time. It was the zoo that was closest to where I grew up in Independence, Mo. I have memories – both fond and otherwise – of playing inside a giant concrete whale, feeling the rough tongue of a giraffe, watching Big Man (the patriarch of the gorilla family), and being scratched (or was it bitten?) by a naughty monkey.

At some point, I think I realized that the KC Zoo, which opened in 1909 in Swope Park, was not a great zoo at all. Many of the animal cages were too small, and the buildings were dark and stinky. Basically, the habitats were not very pleasant for the animals, nor for the humans who came to visit them.

But in 1991, after bringing it to a vote and with financing from a grant, the city took on a massive overhaul of the zoo, expanding it to the current size of 202 acres, and improving it to the point that it has become nearly unrecognizable as the zoo I visited as a child. A unique Australia exhibit was added in 1993, and an enormous Africa exhibit, opened in 1995, made the Kansas City Zoo truly world-class.

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By the time I had kids of my own, I often took them to the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, because it was closer to our home in Maryville, Mo., and because I truly thought it was a better zoo. But we did take them to the KC Zoo occasionally. Memorably, my daughter Katie and I spent the night at the zoo as part of a class field trip one summer.

I thought of that overnight adventure a couple of weeks ago when my husband Dave and I visited the Kansas City Zoo on a rainy Monday. As we arrived at the chimpanzee exhibit, it all came back to me: The night we spent in the zoo was hot, maybe over 100 degrees during the day and not much cooler at night. We slept on the floor of the chimp viewing area, and believe me, the chimps had it better outside in the trees. We were bunched up – a whole class of kids, their parents, teachers, college student helpers – on the concrete floor, sharing just one bathroom for girls and one for boys. I remember getting very little sleep, hanging out with my friend Jane Poe and her daughter Laura, who was Katie’s best friend at the time. I remember that the hot-dog campfire cookout was so intensely hot that most of us ate our hotdogs cold because we couldn’t stand to be close enough to the fire on that hot, hot night long enough to get the food to cook.

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I remember getting up very early the next morning to the sounds of the African animals waking up and becoming active. I walked around the compound in the early morning light, all alone, and enjoyed the relative break from the heat. I remember the zoo staff taking pity on us a few hours later and letting us eat our sack lunches in the air-conditioned visitor center instead of making us eat outside as planned. I remembered that even though it was hot and the conditions were not ideal, it was a magical experience.

I remembered all those things as Dave and I walked through the zoo this spring. It had been several years since I’d visited. The rain had stopped by the time we got there, but the earlier showers had kept most of the visitors away, so like my early morning experience so many years ago, we had the zoo pretty much to ourselves.

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This time around, I really loved watching the adult kangaroos and wallabies – and one baby – who hop around in a wonderful Australia exhibit with nary a visible fence to keep them confined. I loved the polar bears and tigers and lions and the lone cheetah on display that day. I loved the penguin exhibit, which opened in 2013 and was totally new to me.

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Most of all, I loved the chimpanzees in their three-acre natural habitat. We arrived to see just two adults lounging quietly, but within minutes many more chimps came down from the hill and from the tops of the trees, and pretty soon there was chimp activity galore, including the antics of a little one that I’m told was just a year old. I wondered as I watched the chimp family interact if any of them were there the night I spent in their world.

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I’m not alone in my adoration of the chimps and the kangaroos, by the way. In 2008, when the Kansas City Zoo was voted one of America’s best zoos, it was ranked No. 1 in the nation for African animals and exhibits, and also No. 1 in the nation for viewing both chimpanzees and kangaroos.

We were almost through the Africa exhibit when dark, threatening clouds rolled in. We headed for the exit, but we were too late. By the time we ducked into the Learning Center at the entrance, we were soaked. But it was still a great day at the zoo.

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