The last time I went to the Chattanooga Zoo, my baby was still in diapers. I remember pushing his little umbrella stroller by some animal cages that seemed to be deserted, then eating sandwiches at an aluminum picnic table in the middle of a parking lot. It was so humid and hot my baby's appliqué had almost slid off his little trouser suit. I was seeking shade like some forest animal.
The next thing I knew, my boys were all grown, and I hadn't given the zoo a second thought. About 10 years ago, when I received a birthday invitation for my little niece Ella Kelley at the Chattanooga Zoo, I packed my large sun hat, a bottle of water and braced myself for a long, hot, uneventful afternoon. Don't expect to actually see any animals, I warned my family.
Ha! I cannot believe no one has called me or texted me or Facebooked me about the Chattanooga Zoo! It is incredible! I know, I know, it's in the news constantly, but this place warrants shaking people by the shoulders and screaming, "The Chattanooga Zoo is right in your back yard and it's awesome!"
Our tour began in the Gombe Forest, and I was immediately awestruck by the chimpanzees. There is something incredibly human about them, and our guide told us they are the closest living relatives to humans. They were paired off, picking through each other's fur like they were braiding hair, all the while looking right at us through the enormous plate glass windows with wise, amber eyes. So close I could have held his hand, one chimp ambled right up to us and looked us over with interest, as if to say, “I love birthday parties, and are the cupcakes chocolate?”
We saw a serval, which is an animal I've never heard of. I thought she was talking about some kind of a serving platter at first. But, the serval is a cross between a cheetah and a lion, except that its head is very small and its legs are very long. Nocturnal, this animal eats rodents whole. If it happens upon a larger animal, like a deer, it avoids organs and intestines, as well as hooves and fur. When dining on birds, the serval plucks it by tossing it in the air and thrashing its head back and forth and spitting out the feathers. I would have paid extra to witness this animal dining.
Throughout the tour, we were up-close and personal with the animals. We saw every single one! There was no, “Oh, he's over behind that brush pile, I think” or waiting patiently for a glimpse. We were right there with them! Halfway through the tour, I realized I didn't even need my sun hat as I sat under a large shade tree by a little fish-filled pond.
I was head-to-head with a jaguar, anxiously pacing in circles (the animal, not me), and our guide explained the difference in the markings between the jaguar and the tiger. The spider monkeys were interesting, but I was riveted by the tamarins, (another animal I'd never heard of), the smallest of the primates. With a head full of platinum, punk rocker hair, this little creature was riveted by us as well. Our guide asked for our trinkets, and she held a baby toy up to the glass. In an instant the tamarin was peering at the brightly colored toy, and reaching for it. Tamarin babies had just been born, and these mini-me's imitated their tiny parents. Exquisite!
At four feet long and 160 pounds, the capybaras (yet another animal totally unknown) is the largest rodent in the world. I'm not kidding about this. I wonder if the serval knows the capybaras is right in the neighborhood.
Cobras and pythons and poisonous frogs, oh my! I didn't linger in this area, partly because I was already on sensory overload with all the exotic animals I was eye-to-eye with, and partly because I am scared of reptiles. But, mainly because it was time for cupcakes and ice cream with Ella.
A new grandmother, I look so forward to regularly spending afternoons with my granddaughter at this magical place, which now has giraffes!
I am sorry the Chattanooga Zoo wasn't finished when my boys were young. Not only would we have had some delightful afternoons, but they would have known a serval is not a waitress tray, and a capybaras is not some kind of a hat.
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Ferris Robinson is the author of three children’s books, “The Queen Who Banished Bugs,” “The Queen Who Accidentally Banished Birds,” and “Call Me Arthropod” in her pollinator series. “Making Arrangements” is her first novel, and the ebook is on promotion until April 7. “Dogs and Love - Stories of Fidelity” is a collection of true tales about man’s best friend. Her website is ferrisrobinson.com and you can download a free pollinator poster there. She is the editor of The Lookout Mountain Mirror and The Signal Mountain Mirror.