The early birds have arrived. A few minivans park in the lot, filled with strollers and wagons, coolers and bags. Mothers stuff every pocket of every backpack with water bottles, snacks and sunscreen. The guests cue up, waiting for the gates to open as a low murmur of excitement builds. It's another day at the zoo.
A zookeeper, pushing a squeaky cart filled with bins and boxes, whistles as he makes his rounds. The key ring at his hip jingles, adding to the music of this one-man band. Doodle-de-doo, Ring-a-Ding, Thumpty-thump, squeak! A baby orangutang, named Hesty, lifts her sleepy head from the crook of her mother's shoulder. Her crazy, orange, bed-head hair sticks up all around her ears as she follows the trek of the "food-giver" until he rounds the bend and walks out of sight. She sighs and burrows deeper into her mother's embrace. She's not quite ready to start her day.
The first group of visitors have passed through the ticket turnstiles. Moms pause for a moment, slathering sunscreen on noses and tugging hats down over heads. "Where to first, kiddos?"
"The Monkey House!"
Pi and Rhu, the newborn Cloud Leopards, lick their lips and roll onto their backs, bellies full of warm milk. The zookeeper strokes Pi's head and offers an old stuffed sock to Rhu, who lazily bats at it with fuzzy, spotted paws. With a yawn, Pi stretches, eyes squeezed shut.
A class of second graders files down the steps of their yellow school bus, all with matching green bandanas tied around their necks. They each carry a clipboard and eagerly scan the map of the park looking for the exhibits they need to visit as part of their scavenger hunt at the zoo.
"Let's go see the big cats! Lions and tigers and...uh, leopards! Oh, my!"
Summit, head to the ground, shuffles toward the rest of his herd. Fresh hay spills from the metal grate in the center of his pen and he takes a mouthful, chewing slowly. He feels the warm summer sun on his back and involuntarily his withers twitch, causing his brownish stripes to quiver. The young zebra nuzzles his mother's side, content and well fed.
An older gentleman pushes his wife in a wheelchair, handing her a zoo map as he shuffles along. "What would you like to see first, Dear?"
"Let's go visit the giraffes and zebras. There is some nice shade along the walkway there where we can find a place to sit."
Hesty, now fully awake and happily fed, hangs upside down from the hammock in which her mother lays sprawled, one long and hairy arm slung over her tired eyes. A little girl presses her fists, caked in graham cracker crumbs, against the glass barrier.
"Look at that one, Mommy. It has crazy hair! And food all over, too, in its hair and all over its face. Do you see it, Mommy?"
Hesty shimmies up the nearest tree, using both her hands and feet on the branches and vines. She makes it look effortless.
"Uh-oh. That little one is sneaking away from her momma. She's really fast. Look, Mommy!"
"I see her. She's okay. Her mom is watching her, see? That's what moms do."
Rhu tumbles over onto his side, clutching his worn sock with all four fuzzy paws, and thumps into the glass wall. Pi licks her paws and cleans her spotted face, paying close attention to her whiskers. The kids on the class trip peer into the cats' den. One little boy presses against the glass, scribbling on his clipboard as he studies the leopards.
"That one has a lot of spots all over its face, little and big spots. I wonder if it has a nickname. I would call it Polka Dot or Speckle Snout."
"Ha, ha! Speckle Snout! That's a good one. Or maybe Splotch. Hello, Splotch!"
"Hello, Splotchy Speckle Snout!"
Lifting his head from the trough, water runs down Summit's neck, dripping big drops of water on the dry ground. As he trots toward the shady tree under which his mother stands, his hooves kick up more dust, making him sneeze. The old lady in the wheelchair laughs and raises her hand, signaling her husband to stop. They pause under the shade of a large tree to watch the zebras.
"What a sweet creature. It looks so happy doesn't it, Dear?"
"Mmmhmm...very happy, even in this heat. I guess it has enough sense to stay in the shade."
"Sweet and smart. Just like us."
The sun continues its course across the sky and all too soon, the air is filled with an announcement.
"Attention, zoo guests. The zoo will be closing in 15 minutes. Please make your way toward the main entrance. Thank you for visiting and come back soon."
Families pack up bags and strollers, loading tired kids and tired parents back into the minivans. School groups line up near their designated buses and teachers count their students. The older couple strolls slowly toward the parking lot, chuckling about the noisy howler monkeys and mischievous lemurs.
Hesty snuggles against her mother and giggles, "So many funny creatures today, Mama. I'm glad you keep me cleaner than some of those babies. They're filthy."
Pi curls up against her brother, Rhu, and purrs, "What was your favorite animal today?"
"Definitely all those little ones with the matching green collars. That one with the freckled face was certainly curious."
Summit's mother rubs her nose against her son's snout, nickering, "You were such a good boy today."
"It was fun to people-watch, Mom. So many strange creatures, both young and old. I can't wait to see more tomorrow!"
A little piece inspired by our trip to the zoo yesterday. And a memorial sign on the bench over by the camels..."Who is watching who?"