Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Zoo Therapy

So I have been working with a wonderful group of people at The Challenge Factory and we have finally reached the point where I need to do something called a "Sweet Spot Statement". The whole purpose of my work with them has been to get me to a point where I can find something to do with myself in the "next chapter" of my life that is enriching, satisfying and - hopefully - monetarily rewarding. I've been having some trouble with this part of the programme, mainly because I am afraid of tricking myself into an incorrect "sweet spot" based on values I don't really hold for myself. Of course I have been tossing around ideas like writing about music or politics, mentoring youth, some kind of teaching....or animal welfare.

And yesterday - before Sarah and I were to sit down and work on that Sweet Spot Statement for me - we decided to go to the Toronto Zoo.

Now, being more or less fatalistic I don't believe that it was an accident that yesterday was not only a day that Sarah had booked off just to recharge but also one that turned out to be so absolutely incredible for walking around outside while working out just where that "sweet spot" might be. When we realized - at 10AM - that we were in for something special from the weather, we got ourselves together, fueled up at Timmy's and headed out to the Zoo - ostensibly to see the new baby penguin chick (born in late January but only on display since March Break or so).

Because I am a bit of a cluck (see what I did there?), I forgot my "real" camera at home so I took this picture of the chick through the glass of his enclosure with my phone's camera. Still, I think it came out fine - and the cool thing is you can see Sarah and me reflected in the glass! The down on this little guy is almost gone and he seems to be just about as big as the adults in the colony already, but he still appeared to be very, very sleepy. What a cutie!

We didn't get to see him immediately, though, as we took our time and walked along the African Savannah trail. It was such a beautiful day that many of the animals were outside and quite alert. Couple that with the wonderful lack of "other people" and it made for a truly memorable walk.

All three elephants were out yesterday and, as they are in the process of being "crate trained" for their imminent trip to California to live out their golden years, every time we see them is a bittersweet moment for us. I went to the Zoo the week it opened in 1974 and I believe that the elephant exhibit might well have been the very first one I rushed to see. I will miss them tremendously. I took no pictures yesterday, but the last time we saw them outside (in early February!) I snapped off quite a few. Here are two of my favourites:

We spent quite a bit of time at the elephant "corral", much of it just listening to these huge, glorious creatures go about their business - hearing sounds we could never have heard on a busy day at the Zoo. The snuffling of their trunks, the surprisingly soft footfall as they walk along, even what sounded remarkably like purring from one of the three ladies on display. We had a lovely chat with a woman by the name of Suzanne about the loss of the elephants and whether the decision on their new location was made by the appropriate people (the consensus was "no") and how important they had been to our common Zoo experience over the years. I didn't keep track of the time, but it's entirely possible we were there for a good 20 minutes or so all told. When it was especially quiet - when there was absolutely nobody around us - we felt as if we could stay there forever.

When we finally did move on, we passed by the hippo enclosure where we paused to listen to one of them gleefully "snorking" up grass a very few feet away from us. Once again, because of the small attendance on a school/work day, we were able to hear everything as if for the first time. I don't know if I've ever heard an animal enjoying their food quite so "vocally" as that hippo!

We visited the cheetah, who was exploring, and the lions who were finishing their lunch - from all appearances, the lower legs and hooves of some cattle. The sounds of them enjoying their meals were astounding. We watched in fascination as the male chomped down again and again on the hollow bone to get at the meat and marrow, the sound echoing around us. We heard the rough tongue of the female grooming herself after her meal was done. Amazing.

We saw many other wonderful creatures on our perambulation, but when we heard the penguin keeper start up her talk (from a distance) we hustled over there as fast as we could. When she was done, we were able to have quite a long talk with her about the baby and, in so doing, uncovered some wonderful news on several fronts. First of all, in the past 5 days or so, two new penguin chicks have hatched! They won't make an "official" announcement until these chicks pass the "danger period" because they don't know yet whether the parents will raise or reject them at this point. Likely it will be public knowledge in a couple of weeks.

But the even bigger news is truly exciting for me personally: plans are in the works to open an interactive penguin zone, if not this coming summer then in the summer of 2013!! This would be an area where, for an extra admission fee (similar to the shark and ray area they had a couple of years ago), Zoo patrons could have a much "closer" encounter with these animals, possibly even including....a chance to touch or even hold one! Thrilling, thrilling news for such a lover of penguins as myself, although I think I may have to start putting money away now so it doesn't break our household bank - I plan to make many, many visits.

After we left the keeper we finally got to see the chick (pictured above). He was so, so cute. He spent, as can be imagined, most of his time preening (still some down to go!) and half-napping but we were still thrilled we got there while he was still a baby. Then we went downstairs to the underwater viewing area of the adult penguins (there were 5 of their 12 adults out and about yesterday). I know I keep dwelling on this, but I can't stress enough how wonderful it was to be there with almost no people around us as we had an entire panel of the glass all to ourselves. Because of this, we were able to actually "play" with a couple of the penguins; I stood at the glass and encouraged the two red-banded adults to swim right up to my hand and circle around it repeatedly, clearly either trying to receive food or affection from me. This was quite thrilling.

After we left the African area we did a really fast walk-through of the Tundra Trek. The polar bear cub has been named: Hudson. He was, however, in a area where it was very difficult to see him, so we didn't stay long. The arctic foxes were awake - unusually, so that was nice - as were the owls. Because it was so quiet - once again - we were able to hear a couple of the wolves calling softly to each other. That was very enjoyable, indeed.

The one last really cool experience I had was completely unexpected. Our final stop was in the Great Barrier Reef exhibit where it was eerily quiet with very peaceful music playing softly in the background. The only (very few) people we encountered there were very respectful of both personal space and the quiet of the room. There were some wonderful things to see here, but I lingered for a moment at the tank where the lionfish lives and crouched down to look up at him. He was absolutely, stunningly beautiful and let me assure you, I don't normally gush about fish.

And then a very zen-like thing happened: he looked at me and commenced a long, slow lowering of his body into the tank, right along the glass until he was looking directly into my face from an inch or so away. He hung there for a few moments and then moved on to another part of the tank, but for a brief instant I swear we were communing with one another. A very strange experience indeed, but very good for the soul.

It was now 4:30 (closing time for the Zoo in non-summer hours) and we reluctantly bid adieu to our animal friends. As our membership is still valid until the end of June we will be back a few more times - if for no other reason than to see the elephants as much as we can while they are still there.

But all the times I have been and all the times I will return will likely not mean as much to me cumulatively as the visit yesterday did. On a day when I was looking for my "sweet spot" there is very little doubt in my mind that I found it on that outing.

I love the Zoo. Always have. But yesterday I got the distinct impression it was loving me right back.

My daughter is very excited about this upcoming exhibit!

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