Dad Goes to the Zoo

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Chapter I.II

Thanksgiving dinners these last sixteen years have been quieter than I would have expected. He never complained, but I picked up that his children happened to be a bit more influenced by their mom. Tim itched to invite people to any and all events. Mardi Gras parties, Fourth of July parties, and New Year's parties weren't so unusual, but he wanted to have the same treatments for Christmas and Thanksgiving. Tim was very much a "the more the merrier" type. But other influences won out. He was forced to spend the holidays with family, and family alone.

One year, just through the flow of natural conversation, Anders asked Tim something like, "hey, if you grew up in San Diego, how come you didn't end up a city kid?" Tim smiled, and chewed his bite faster so he could answer. He said, as soon as he was able to, that he was almost a "city rat." He said he was this close. But then he enthusiastically told us the story of his first trip to the San Diego Zoo, when he was very, very little.

As my dad got older he started to have a love-hate relationship with zoos. In a way, I'm certain that's why he ran the Shelter the way he did, why it turned into what it is now. Tim had actually never been to a zoo until he was about eight. You'd think someone like my dad might as well have been born in one, but it took him surprisingly long to even visit.

* * * * *

He told us that he was in love with the city at first. That Elliot later told him about how he'd point at all the big buildings and ask about them. A particularly funny story was that Tim would practice his knowledge of colors by pointing at the cars on drives and shout out "blue!", "red!", "yellow!" Tim even had some memories of asking to take the subway — a place he grew to hate later in life. In kindergarten, they were asked to draw their dream house, and he remembered that his was in the suburbs. A place that he disliked even more than subways, by the time of this conversation.

So, what changed was that he had come home from school one day with a paper in hand, a permission slip stating that his teacher, Mr. Benson, was planning a field trip. Tim had always had a soft spot for animals, what with growing up with a veterinarian for a mother and a taxidermist for a dad, not to mention his honorary uncle Hank talking to him about bugs and other critters all the time, but this seemed out of this world to him. Dad's mind raced as he thought of all the weird and wonderful animals he had seen in grandpa's shop or on Hank's books.

Deer, bears, chimpanzees, hippopotamuses, maybe even some lions and tigers?

The possibilities were endless.

Though I can't say for sure whether or not little Tim was positively vibrating with excitement, I like to think he had to be strapped down once he was told Grandpa Elliot signed off on the field trip form. Tim's always been an easy one to get excited. Just thinking about how he must have been during the wait between the permission slip going out and the day he finally went makes me feel a little bad for his parents.

So, a young Tim Wilson, eyes full of wonder, stepped into the San Diego Zoo one fateful morning. He heard the distant trumpeting of elephants, the singing birds, and the screeching monkeys as he passed under the arches. As you might imagine, he was one of the first to dart out into the place once Mr. Benson dismissed everyone.

I remember him telling us that the very first place he went to was the primate enclosure.

Tim thought that monkeys and apes were just hilarious. He thought they looked funny, he thought they made funny noises, he thought they had funny walks. As a young boy, he thought the fact that some of them had colorful butts was just about the greatest thing in the world. So, using the buddy system, he and a friend dashed over, to admire the ridiculousness of the apes.

The first beauties they came across were the gorillas. They were large, they were funky looking. To a city dweller like Tim, it was a dream. Sure, you were taught that these were real in schools, but you never thought they actually existed until you saw them. No picture book details just how strong a gorilla actually is — nothing can prepare you for their size, or their coarse hair, or the grunts that they let out every once in a while. These were things that you just have to experience for yourself, or you'll never understand them.

So of course, Tim pointed and laughed, and went on to the chimpanzees.

They were lanky, and louder. They shouted, they swung around; they were even better than the gorillas. They had big scary teeth, but there was a strong fence between Tim and the chimps, and they didn't scare him at all. He had heard that they threw poop sometimes, and that was another thing that Tim thought was unbelievably funny. He pointed, he laughed, he joked. Onto the next.

Tim said that this continued for some time, but some sort of influence was coming over himself as he walked. Kids are not known for their introspective abilities, and one might argue that they are more subconscious than conscious. So, at the time, Tim of course had no idea what was going on. But, looking back, this was how he described it.

With each passing exhibit, there was this nagging idea, this idea that, even though he wasn't there, there was somewhere that these animals weren't in cages. Somewhere that they were roaming about — some in dense jungles, some in wide open plains. Some in tundras. Some in deserts. Some animals swam in the great big oceans, some things hid in the forests, some things spent most of their time in the air and migrated. Some were made for the mountains. Some were made for lakes, rivers, and creeks. Some disappeared for winter. Some lived on the arctic ice caps. Some were built for the savannas of Africa. Some lived on the great plateaus, or in deep canyons. Some were even made for caves.

But over time, Tim realized that none were made for the city.

There were no flightless birds in the streets, unless you counted injured pigeons.

There were no furry den dwellers in the houses, unless you counted rats and mice.

There were no animals getting fat for winter, there were no frogs spreading their eggs on the bottom of leaves, there were no birds of paradise, there were no canopy dwellers, there was nothing.

What this looked like, taking place in the mind of an eight year old, is of course up to speculation. It couldn't have dawned so clearly, but it couldn't have been nonexistent either. Each enclosure yielded less laughs, less pointing, and came with more wonder, more wide eyes, more "wow."

Was there any other animal with a neck as long as the giraffe?

Was there any bird more imposing than the bald eagle?

Was there any mammal larger than an elephant?

Soon enough, Tim had forgotten he was on a field trip, which became a problem when he lost his buddy and they had to go searching for him. They found him with his face pressed up against the glass, looking at a massive yellow python. They practically had to pry him away from it, because he wasn't going peacefully. On the bus ride home, Tim berated everyone with animal facts. Did you know that the platypus is a mammal that lays eggs? Did you know that a snake can unhinge its jaw to eat? Did you know that an octopus can fit through any hole that's not smaller than its beak?

But Tim soon realized that no one else had become enchanted in the same way. It must have been his background with animals, that made him inclined to be so taken by them. But Tim did not have that thought at the time. All he saw were people who didn't understand the beauty of the world around them — put in much more kid-appropriate terms, of course.

He was discouraged, and unhappy.

When he got back to school, and got picked up by Elliot, he asked:

"Why do we live here?"

To which Elliot responded:

"Because I work here."

But as Tim looked out at the buildings, and the streets, and the bridges, and the streetlights, and the stoplights, and the bus stops, and the apartments, and the sidewalks, and the gutters, and the grates, and the manhole covers, and the intersections, and the signs, and the art installations, and the murals, and the houses, and the perfectly bland lawns, and the front door, and the entryway, and the living room, and the television, and the hallway, and his bedroom, and his bed… all of a sudden, San Diego didn't seem all that magical anymore.

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