I’m a mom. Ergo, I spend lots of time at the zoo. Which is cool, cause I enjoy animals maybe more than my kid enjoys animals. I like to think this makes me an expert when it comes to zoos. Ergo, the superlative in the title.
My family lives in the general vicinity of Chicago. So, we often make trips to the Lincoln Park Zoo. And by often, I mean we visited that place at least five times last year. As a rule, we generally skip Brookfield because it’s expensive ($10 for parking and another $15 per person just to get in the gate is a costly way to spend the day, in my book); and even though it’s much bigger than its alternative, I really don’t see how it’s any better. Plus, I like the juxtaposition of seeing the top of the skyline peeking out from behind the zebras, camels and ostriches in the city’s zoo.
This summer, our little family was living in Jersey, about 10 minutes from New York City. I worked during the week, but we had the weekends left to explore. Naturally, New York City was a big draw. When you’ve got a toddler, climbing to the top of the Statue of Liberty loses its appeal. So our first foray into that behemoth of a city was a good old-fashioned trip to the zoo.
The drive in was a breeze. I was nervous at first, because strangely, even though we’ve lived in large metro areas our entire adult lives, I always get nervous driving into a new city for the first time. We took the GW Bridge (I later learned that New Yorkers refer to us non-residents degradingly, if not aptly, as “bridge and tunnelers”), and found a spot in the Bronx River Gate’s mostly empty parking lot.
I doubt the parking lot is typically mostly empty at 10 am. But, I’ve neglected so far to mention that we picked the hottest day of the summer to visit. We lathered baby girl in SPF 50 and strapped her into her flimsy umbrella stroller (I’m too cheap to shell out hundreds for a top-of-the-line all-terrain beauty), and made our way to the gates.
The zoo’s seclusion was overwhelming. One minute, we’re in bumper-to-bumper traffic, alongside homeless people pushing shopping carts past chain link fences, to the music of cars idling and honking. The next, we’re shaded by tall, leafy trees, hearing nothing but birds chirping and kids laughing. Totally surreal. And as we made our way deeper into the zoo, it became more and more remote. We completely forgot we were surrounded by millions of other people.
Apparently the hottest day of the year equates to the best day of the year to visit the Bronx Zoo, because there were absolutely no crowds. True, it was hot, and we probably sound like terrible parents for taking our toddler out in such heat, but there was so much shade, and so many indoor exhibits, that we didn’t really feel any discomfort. Plus, around noon, the humidity broke into a brief shower, which cooled us off and made the rest of the day much more bearable.
Thinking we’d need to stay hydrated, we bought one of those giant souvenir cups that cost $7 filled, but come with free refills. It took us a good three hours to finish the drink, so we never did get a free refill. But it did have a great future as a rinse cup at bath time.
The zoo is huge. 265 acres huge. In terms a Chicagoan would understand, it’s like a giant forest preserve, with non-native wild animals. The website warns against trying to see the entire zoo in one day. Normally, I scoff at messages like this. Right, it’s just the zoo’s PR team convincing patrons to spend more money on a second visit. But now I know better. We spent five hours there and only saw half.
It’s also impossible to know where you are without consulting a map because of its sheer size, as well as the towering trees that add to its forest-like charm. The exhibits are huge, too. Not just huge by Lincoln Park Zoo standards. It was nice to see the animals could spread out in their habitats, stretch their legs a bit.
The animals were the same as any other zoo animals. Some did interesting things and some did nothing but sleep and poop and hide. Maybe the Bronx Zoo animals are not necessarily the Best Zoo animals. And recent maulings come to mind, although what do you expect will happen when someone jumps into a tiger’s den …
We were impressed to see there was a red panda exhibit. My husband loves red pandas, so we spent a lot of time watching those adorable little creatures. We also spent quite a bit of time admiring the life-sized Lego animals, which startled us until we realized that those uncaged animals on the path up ahead were not in fact alive and were not preparing to devour us.
If you have kids and live in New York– heck, even if you don’t have kids and just want to get away and spend your Saturday with animals that can’t give you the finger, cut you off in traffic, or overcharge you and deny it in a grating Brooklyn accent — I’d hands-down recommend the Bronx Zoo. Just don’t forget to bring your walking shoes.
Did I mention it’s huge?