Dare to

Dare to: Camp out at the zoo

Updated: 2013-05-20T15:32:03Z

By LEE HILL KAVANAUGH

The Kansas City Star

A few summers back, when money was tight and we were expecting our second child, we didn’t want to travel far.

So we decided to go camping in Africa. Sort of.

A Kansas City Zoo brochure hooked us: Nocturnal Safari. Spend the night in the middle of the African exhibit! Camp under the stars! Eat s’mores! Breakfast with the chimps! BYOT. (Bring your own tent.)

Perfect for our then 6-year-old daughter, who had watched “The Lion King” so many times she could recite its dialogue.

For $35 each we would have a behind-the-scenes look (and listen) at the zoo at night. A little pricey for an exotic backyard adventure, but how many children’s books have the theme of the zoo at night? Can you really hear lions roaring? What’s the value of a memory like that?

We wouldn’t have to cook meals. Eat supper at home, then bring bottled water, toothbrushes, a tent, sleeping bags, air mattress, flashlights and, most important, Mommy Bear and Sad Bear, our daughter’s well-worn stuffed “wild” animals.

Our date with destiny came a few weeks later. Meeting at the zoo parking lot by 6 p.m., campers piled their gear on top of the zoo’s Jitney, an open-air bus similar to the ones that travel in so many Third World villages. As the sun set (and yes, it really was orange like the one in “Lion King”), the Jitney bumped along the now mostly empty roads inside the zoo. It stopped at an unlocked gate near the baboon section, the secret passageway to Africa’s inner sanctum.

We carried our gear around a curving pathway, over the bridges and into a camping area right at the lake’s edge. Before daylight faded, about eight tents unfurled into canvases of triangles and octagons.

Next came the roaring.

Not from animals but from electric pumps blowing up air mattresses. We had just our bicycle hand pump. But our neighbors took pity and gave us a quick hit of air from their battery-operated one.

Just around the bend from camp were two picnic shelters and a sunken pit for a fire. (Later this would be the rendezvous point for stories and s’mores.) But the first activity was the orienteering/scavenger hunt along the zoo’s darkened paths.

With a compass in hand, and several flashlights, we walked through the Congo, finding clues that sent us to spots like a crate inside the gorilla blind and the sign at the red-capped mangabey exhibit. The goal was to discover the identity of the mystery animal we were tracking.

(Spoiler alert: Our daughter finally found a tiny skunk skull in a tree.)

Our next activity involved sitting inside an air-conditioned building, the chimp classroom. We each got a paper plate, some dissecting probes and one bulging brown owl pellet that looked a lot like something else.

“It looks just like the fur balls our cat pukes up, except it’s from an owl,” said our daughter. Ummm, yeah.

We started slicing the thing up. Inside the bulges were tiny skulls, bony paws and some fur, a near perfect reconstruction of a mouse skeleton. (For years, the plastic baggy holding all these parts was displayed on our refrigerator.)

We hiked to the next place, the African merchant theater, where we learned about three types of animals: crespuscular, diurnal and nocturnal.

Crepuscular animals are active during the day when temperatures are just right. The docent brought out a big ball python that we petted. Diurnal animals are active during the day and can see more colors than human eyes can. (We looked but did not touch the Amazon parrot because she was known for biting.)

Last were the nocturnals, animals active at night. The docent removed a cover from a cage and let us each pet an elderly chinchilla, who had liquid brown eyes and cuddle-soft fur. We understood why the species nearly went extinct.

Soon enough it was time for the melting of the marshmallows and slumber. So far the nocturnal noises were limited to crickets, tree frogs and the occasional screaming peacock. Not too different from a Missouri backyard.

But as the night deepened, the zoo’s version of “Harlem Nocturne” grew.

Somewhere around 3 a.m. Hannah woke up, crying. “What’s that? Daddy! Mommy! I’m scared! WAKE UP!”

There was a lot of noise, really loud, outside our tent. The hair on my neck stood up. At first I thought people were yelling. It sounded like several low-throated men bellowing a chant: “JUG-O-RUM! JUG-O-RUM! JUG-O-RUM!”

We pointed a flashlight at the noise. Staring back were dozens of dinner-plate-sized bullfrogs, dating and mating. Like a soundtrack from a sci-fi movie involving radiation leaks and amour.

And of course, now Hannah had to go. Restrooms were back at the super-secret opening to our camp area. A hike. In the dark.

My husband offered to take her, but it seemed creepy to stay solo in the tent. The three of us started out, all alone. But the zoo was ready for campers like us: Every few feet were tiny lanterns showing the way. Above was a clear view of twinkling stars.

Away from the frogs partying at the lake we heard what we craved to hear: growls and three-octave squawks, the wild kingdom all around us.

Next morning, going to the chimp house was a fog-shrouded hike. The coffee was hot, with a good choice of cereals. We ate watching the chimpanzees eat their breakfast, too. Just two groups of primates staring at each other through glass.

It’s a campout we remember well. Our daughter, now 11, told our youngest the best parts. He nearly cried because he didn’t get to do it, too. But because he loves Nikita, one of the zoo’s polar bears, it gave me an idea …

Maybe in the heat of summer, a sleepover in the Arctic?

To reach Lee Hill Kavanaugh, call 816-234-4420 or email lkavanaugh@kcstar.com.

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