By Brooke Coe
5:30pm- The Adventure Begins
My 5-year-old, Maddie, is brimming with questions as we wait to drive our car into the zoo. “We get to drive through the zoo? Are we going to sleep in our car? Do we get to sleep by the lions?” As we drive the car into the zoo, a smiling zoo employee directs us to park in front of the anteater exhibit. We unload our tent and supplies as her questions continue. “Are we going to sleep in that tent? How do we set it up? Are the animals going to be in the tent with us? What’s for dinner?” A friendly volunteer assists us with our supplies, and our little family with way too much gear makes our way past the saki monkeys, past the jaguar, and across the lake path. Finally, we arrive at the Reptile House Lawn, and join other excited families as they begin setting up their tents. I look at my spouse. “Have you ever set up this tent before?” “No,” he says, “Have you?” Quick to our aid, the overnight team, with the “help” of an excited 5-year-old, patiently took our jumbled mess of fabric and poles and turned it into a livable tent. Let the adventure begin!
6:15pm- Welcome Aboard!
After a quick welcome in the zoo’s amphitheater, the staff sends us off to dinner and head out into the zoo. We’ve seen the zoo during the day, but what a difference as the sun goes down! The lions are roaring, the giraffes running, the snow leopard is right near the front, and the lemurs are so playful! . We continue around the zoo as Maddie regales us with her animal knowledge, a constant stream of chatter and excited questions. “Where do the animals sleep? When do they sleep? Why is he making that sound? What are the otters going to eat for dinner? Is it time for the otters’ dinner now?”
8:15pm- Animal Enrichments!
We join the staff and other families at the otter exhibit to watch the two adorable otters frolic and play. The staff tells us about enrichment and the positive effect it has on the minds and lives of the zoo animals. As staff toss pieces of carrot, apple, and yam into the otter exhibit, they ask if anyone has any questions, and Maddie raises her hand. “Are the otters friends? What is their favorite food? My favorite food is spaghetti. Do they like spaghetti?” After patiently answering all the other questions, we move back to the amphitheater for the twilight program as the sun goes down.
8:30pm- Animals, Stories, Games, and more!
In the amphitheater, zookeepers bring out nocturnal animal ambassadors, and we get a truly up-close and personal encounter with some amazing animals (“Can I touch it? Will it bite me?”). Maddie fidgets excitedly as the zookeeper gets closer and closer to her with a poky hedgehog. She touches the hedgehog’s back with an enormous smile on her face, then looks at her fingers, amazed at how it actually felt. After the ambassador animals, we sing songs, eat snacks, and play games, getting the final wiggles out of all the kids.
After an exciting day, filled with so many unique animal experiences, we are ready to settle down into our tent and get to sleep. I can honestly say that I have never been lulled to sleep by honking flamingos, but after the fun-filled adventure we had, the sounds didn’t bother me at all.
6:30am- A Wild Wake up!
Never has my alarm clock been the call of a loud bird! Bright and early, at 6:30am, a zookeeper walks around with a laughing kookaburra, who so graciously calls and calls, alerting the families that it is time to start emerging. Maddie slept surprisingly well overnight, and I slept…well, not as well (somehow a 5-year-old takes up A LOT of space in a tent). So, let me tell you how grateful I am to see steaming hot coffee! I get some caffeine and begin breaking down the tent. The animal handlers bring a parrot, along with HIS breakfast, into the amphitheater and chat with us about more amazing animals. Maddie and Dad watch the parrot for a time and, of course, ask some questions (“Can he repeat what I say? What is his favorite breakfast food?”). After peppering the animal handlers with questions, Maddie and Dad head off to color and ask the Zoo Teens questions at the enrichment-making station (“Who are these boxes for? What is the lemurs’ favorite color? Would they like it if I wrote my name?”). I load the car and drive out of the zoo, parking nearby. I walk back to find my family enjoying breakfast, and I help myself to pastries and more coffee. As the crowd at the breakfast table dwindles, the overnight staff informs us that it is time to visit the lemurs.
8:00am- Leaping Lemurs!
The black and white ruffed lemurs seemed to know what was in store, because they quickly ran inside while the keepers placed very colorful cardboard boxes in their house (“When are they going to come out? Why can’t the zookeeper be in there with them? Which one of the boxes will they go to first?”). Once clear, the zookeeper opens the doors and out pour very excited lemurs, who descend on the boxes (“that lemur is on my box!”). All the kids watch eagerly as the lemurs investigate the scented boxes, pointing out every inch of the box that they personally colored. After the excitement, we are toured through the rest of the primate areas, learning about all the primates at the zoo.
We finish off the program in the amphitheater, and all too soon it is time to say goodbye. What a truly memorable experience at the Sacramento Zoo! It will certainly be something that we, especially Maddie, will talk about for a long time to come. As we make our way to the zoo’s exit, Maddie asks yet another question. “Do we have to go home now?” “Nope,” I say, “we can stay in the zoo for a little while longer.” “Yes! Let’s go ride the train.”