May 22, 2016
Above: Ozzie the Ostrich makes a visit to the tram on the Zoofari trail in the Watani Grasslands exhibit at the North Carolina Zoo near Asheboro. Th exhibit is brand new and loads of fun. Highly recommended.
Back in the dim dark days when the kids were still in strollers, one of the places you could take them was the zoo. It was really more of an obligation than a treat. Watching wild animals in confined areas was not my idea of a good time. Mostly they just looked back at you with either a bored expression or prowled around their “habitat” as if trying to decide whether it was worth it to try to escape. The big event of the day was “feeding time.” Now, I’m aware of the mountains of research that goes on at zoos that benefits our animal friends and that zoos have changed, becoming miniature versions of the great out of doors in order to make the animals feel more at home and less caged. Best of all, most zoos today are in the business of protecting endangered species. Nonetheless, it is not likely, unless you’re unlucky, that you’re going to get up close and personal with any wild animals while visiting a zoo.
So when Carole suggested we head down to Asheboro to get out of our own confined space, I cast around for reasons I could give for not being enthusiastic. “Lots of walking,” I pointed out to remind her of her back problems. That was the biggest weapon in my arsenal, so I was out of ammunition when she pointed out that the North Carolina State Zoo now has what they call a “Zoofari.” It seems you ride around in an open tram over 40 acres or so where a host of wild animals, including rhinoceroses, ostriches, and different breeds of antelopes roam freely. It’s called the Watani Grasslands Exhibits. And it changed my mind about zoos.
Before I became afflicted with common sense, I harbored a secret desire in the 1950s to become a big game hunter like Gregory Peck in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1952) and Clark Gable in “Mogambo” (1953). Actually, at 15 and 16 years of age, I think I was really more interested in Ava Gardner, Susan Hayward, and Grace Kelly, thinking how much fun it would be to camp out under the stars with them. Anyway, pushing the kids around the Washington, D.C. zoo as a responsible adult a dozen years later was not quite the same thing.
That’s why the Zoofari at the North Carolina zoo was a fitting substitute for the abandoned fantasies of youth. Our canvas-topped tram traveled over rutted gravel roads in an area that for all the world made you think you could be in the Serengeti Plain. We watched wild animals do their thing without being too concerned about who they were sharing their home with. Fortunately, the rhinoceroses decided that the tram didn’t present much of a target so they didn’t charge and the five or so breeds of beautiful antelopes presented us with either studied indifference or showed us their backsides as they gracefully made their way to higher ground. Only the ostriches seemed curious enough about us to stick their heads inside the trams to size us up. As our engaging guide explained, the eyes of an ostrich are bigger than their brain and they never figure out exactly what the tram is so they have to check it out every time one passes.
It was a marvelous hour spent learning more about the creatures we share this ball of mud with and I highly recommend it for any of the Walter Mitty types who still have an African safari on their bucket list.
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