For my kids’ birthdays, in lieu of a party, we like to celebrate with a no-holds-barred day trip: whatever the heck you want to do, kid.
For Cassidy’s 5th birthday, this meant a trip to the Philadelphia Zoo!
After taking a quick look at admission prices for the zoo ($18 for me, $15 per child, plus $12 for parking) I decided to go with a Family Plus membership for $118. This entitled us to a year’s worth of unlimited visits, parking is included, plus admission for 2 guests. Basically, if we go twice the membership more than pays for itself, and we didn’t have to worry about getting everything in, in one day.
All three kids- Cassidy, newly turned 5; Maverick, 8; and Jacob, 11- loved the zoo. What kid doesn’t?
We arrived as soon as the place opened so the animals were still out and about- for the first time ever, I got to see the cheetahs up close rather than from a distance as they took refuge in the shade.
The cheetahs and jaguars were Cassidy’s top priority. The zoo has opened a new Big Cat habitat, called Big Cat Falls, since the last time I’d visited. This new habitat more closely mimics the cats’ own natural habitat, and the cats did seem happier and more comfortable.
At the very least, they were contentedly sunning where we could see them rather than retreating to the far reaches of their enclosures. This new development made the zoo trip about a zillion times more enjoyable for me, I’d always felt bad watching the cats pace in their concrete cages.
Other than the big cats, Cassidy’s favorite parts of the zoo trip were of a less exotic nature:
- the duck pond, where we tossed treats purchased from a vending machine until Mom ran out of quarters;
- the ducklings that we discovered splashing with their mom along one of the grassy pathways;
- the everyday birds that hopped right up to us, looking for a handout;
- the butterflies that were everywhere, landing on the flora planted to attract them.
Peacock chicks, out for a stroll with mum. Can you stand it?
The elephants, sadly, had been recently relocated to the Pittsburgh Zoo, so we didn’t get to see any. There had been some controversy as to whether the habitat was adequate for them; from what I understand there were funding issues. In any case, this opened up a discussion with the older kids about the ethics of zoos in general, a concept I struggle with every time I visit, and I do want to touch on that briefly here.
I hate that these animals are kept in captivity, in a habitat a fraction of the size of their natural domain. While they may be comfortable and well cared-for, does that in any way substitute for their freedom?
I’m also not crazy about the whole voyeuristic aspect of zoos- this feeling that the animals are there for our entertainment. We stare and point, safe behind glass walls or fences surrounded by cement moats.
Does this encourage a sense of human superiority in our kids? By bringing them to a place where the wild is contained and on display, do I contribute to a notion of the “other”-ness of nature?
On the flip side, many of these animals were either born in captivity, or for whatever reason would not survive in the wild, or are rare and endangered and breeding attempts are in play for their conservation.
For many urban children, this may well be the only glimpse they get of nature beyond their own backyards.
It is one thing to read of lions and hippos and giraffes, and quite another to look into their eyes in awe and truly see them. “Humans seldom value what they cannot name,” says Elaine Brooks, and I think we can extend that to, humans seldom love what they do not know. Really, what other chance do children have to know these animals? To match up name and experience and emotion? It is much easier to become passionate about the plight of the polar bear when you’ve watched them swim before your eyes, experienced their size and majesty and grace.
In my opinion, it was worth the trip just to have the opportunity to have this discussion with my children, to open this debate; and I think it reinforced an already strong instinct to do what we can to preserve these creatures and their habitats.
In other news, as we left we did get to see this elephant sculpture, and Cassidy was satisfied.
Arrive early, when the animals and docents are well-rested, not too hot, and feeling sociable.
If you think your family might like to visit more than once, absolutely spring for the zoo membership. It will pay for itself in two visits, and you’ll always have a place to go when the kids are bored. Also, a fair portion of the membership fee is tax-deductible.
You can become a member online and print out your receipt to present to the parking people and upon entering. You can also purchase a membership in person BUT your parking fee will not be reimbursed.
Wear sneakers! I couldn’t believe how many moms I saw in pretty sandals that must have killed by the end of the day. The terrain is hilly, and, let’s face facts, you will be spending a good amount of time carrying smaller children who are exhausted but unwilling to nap. Go for comfort.
Start from the back! The cheetahs are at the back of the zoo at the top of a pretty steep hill. Do yourself a favor and go there first while you’re still full of energy. Trust me- after several hours of walking around, it bites pushing a stroller up that hill. Plus, as I pointed out before, the cheetahs retreat in the heat of the day. Your odds of seeing them are much better first thing in the morning.
(Click here to print out a zoo map. Cassidy and I planned our route ahead of time so there was no arguments about heading straight for the back. We also marked the bathrooms for easy reference. And then we left our map in the car.)
Chat with the docents! These lovely people volunteer to share information at certain exhibits throughout the zoo. They are a wealth of information and most will very enthusiastically answer your (and your children’s) questions. They are also very good about locating hidden animals in the exhibits for you!
Pack a lunch! Freeze water bottles, they will keep your food cool until it’s time to eat and you’ll be glad you have them. Water costs $3 a bottle at the concessions and I paid over $5 for burgers that were mediocre at best. Vegetarian options are sorely limited. Save the money on food and use it for the carousel or swan boats. (You can refill your water bottles at the water fountains!)
If you do buy a drink, be aware that the zoo does not provide straws. You may want to pack a sippy cup for younger kids to minimize mess.
Be vigilant about your litter! The birds are very accustomed to foraging through leftovers. While I was there I saw one bird take off with a ziploc bag with some stray Cheez-its still inside. That bird will, at best, peck through and ingest plastic along with its crackers (plastic doesn’t break down and takes up room in birds’ small stomachs; if they ingest too much plastic they will die of starvation). At worst, it will drop that ziploc bag into the enclosure of an endangered exotic and that animal will eat the plastic. Please, avoid bringing plastic into the zoo at all, and be sure that all your trash makes it into trash receptacles.
Don’t feed the peacock! Or else he will not leave you alone as you finish your meal. ( We witnessed this occurring at another table- the kids fed the peacock and the mom was furious that the peacock wouldn’t go away. Especially as he was begging very vocally and scaring the smaller children!)
Bring quarters! 50 cents will buy you a handful of bird feed at the duck pond. A chance to rest and take lots of pics of kids delightedly feeding the ducks: priceless.
Bring a backup memory card: mine became corrupted in some way and I lost the vast majority of our photos (everything pictured in this post occurred in the last 15 minutes of our trip). Or, better yet, give your child their own disposable camera and let them document their own memories.
Beware the Boar: The zoo has a number of metal statues scattered about that kids like to climb and parents like to photograph. These statues get HOT! Test how hot it is before lifting your child on top for a photo op. Or, put a shirt or something between the metal and your child’s legs. But DO take the picture! These are always my favorite shots!
Give a little history lesson. The Philadelphia Zoo was America’s first zoo, chartered in 1859 and opened in 1874 ( due to a little delay known as the Civil War). Admission was a quarter for adults and a dime for children.
We plan to visit the zoo tons more over the course of our membership year,
so more photos and tips in the days ahead!