Zoo adventure! (in which I attend an overnight as a visitor and not a staff member, for a change..)

Many moons ago, I used to work for the Academy of Natural Science’s Safari Overnight program.  It’s changed a lot since my time…which makes me sound like grandma, doesn’t it?  Gah!

So. I was one of the kitchen managers and, when that job was eliminated, I became an assistant manager and a sometimes-Teacher Naturalist.  What this means is that I spent years either scrambling to get snacks and coffee (ZOMG can Boy Scout dads drink coffee!), or being in assistant-charge of the needs of up to 450 people per night, starting from 6PM and going until about 9AM the next morning.  It was exhausting, it was awesome, it meant I got to work with people I’m still friends with well over a decade later, and I remain proud of being a part of that team.

But. I’ve never seen how other places handled their version of overnight programs.  Many zoos, museums, and aquariums have such programs, and they’re a great experience for boy scouts, girl scouts, and family groups.

Have you ever seen “A Night at the Museum“?

…No, it wasn’t as cool as this..but it was pretty friggin’ cool.
……..Yes, all the kids thought the T-rex and the mummies totally came to life at night.)

So Bones noticed that the local Binder Park Zoo also has an overnight program, and asked if I’d like to go.


Once we recovered from kayaking the day before, we packed up our gear and headed off to Battle Creek.  We took a detour to check out Marshall, MI, and found ourselves in the midst of a blues festival.


As has become our habit, we hit up all the antique shops on the way..

antique 1..Not antique, but dang pretty.

antique 2

antique 3
We always find the haunty stuff.

antique 6
I fell madly in love with this fella…

antique 7
..and told him and all his buddies that we’d be back soon.

antique 8
Bones describes this photo as, “Dusti in heaven.”  Pretty close!

(dang I loves me some antique bottles)
Then it was time to find dinner, and then..off to the zoo!
The Binder Park Zoo is very woodsy and not very focused on North American critters, but it *is* really good at using its property creatively.  It has, for example, an area called “Swamp Adventure,” which is a boardwalk that takes you through a rather fascinating tour of a natural swampy wetlands.  Probably one of their neatest feature is their Wild Africa area, which features prominently in their website’s main page video.  And this is the area where we were going to spend our evening!  🙂
zoo 4
A surprisingly small number of us – between 30 and 40 people, mostly adults – met up by a staff entrance at the zoo to check in and carry our gear to our chariot.
zoo 5
This is one of the several trams that bring people from the main part of the zoo to Wild Africa and then back again.  It’s about a half mile hike, which you can do if you feel motivated to do so, or it’s about a 5 minute ride.  Along the way, a series of recordings informs you about your trip from the US to Africa (which I think is kinda adorable.)
zoo 6
Wild Africa is based on video and research done in Africa. They’ve tried to make it look as unpolished and believable as possible.
zoo 7
We were instructed to put our gear in the Kalahari Kitchen, take a seat, and fill out our name badge ‘tickets’ for the event.  (Again, I think this is adorable.)  They reuse the tags, so this wasn’t a you-can-keep-it souvenir.
zoo 8
This is where we spent a good portion of our time, and where people would be bedding down for the evening.

I confess I was disappointed that the overnight seemed to be mostly focused on wearing the kids out rather than giving us a chance to really enjoy the fact that we were in a zoo after hours.  We were split into three country-named teams and played “African Olympic” games.  The goal was to win facts about our team’s country so that we would have information to do a report about our country the next morning.


They did do a fairly long animal presentation, using some critters I would have expected – Madagascar hissing cockroaches, for one – and others that were a nice surprise.

zoo 9African bullfrog

zoo 10
a surprisingly calm ring-necked dove

We then went on a short walking tour of the zoo, not going very far into the zoo, played another game, went back to the kitchen for a quick snack, and then went on a night hike that included a few more activities that tested things like our night vision.  (This could have been cool had people been more quiet; as it was, we did get lucky and heard a screech owl!)  Our hike ended at a campfire..
zoo 11yay fire!
And then it was time for bed.  You were allowed to bring a tent if you so desired…which meant we totally slept right by the plains display!  Which was totally worth the price of admission, IMNSHO.
zoo 12
Pretty much the only critters we saw were ostriches, but there’s a bunch of neat beasties living in this area.  Mostly what sleeping there meant was that we heard some awesome bird songs at dawn.

In the morning, we packed up, had breakfast, did our reports/presentations on our countries, and took another hike.  The goal/hope was that we’d see the giraffes out and about, but they were being kinda shy.  Two of the benefits of the overnight are (a) you get free admission to the zoo the next day, and (b) if the giraffes are willing, you can feed them before any other visitors are there.  Since this didn’t happen, we had coupons to use for later.

Back on our chariot, back to our cars, and then back into the zoo we went.  Predictably, we spent time oohing and aahing over the wallabies (hee!) and after some more wandering, we decided to get some coffee and snacks.

Now, the night before, one of our overnight staff peeps had mentioned that there were some peacock chicks somewhere in the zoo.  I didn’t think we’d see them, but..dang, I love peacocks, so I was hopeful.

And I guess someone was listening.

zoo 13“Whaaaaatcha got there?”
I was ECSTATIC!  Mamma Peahen had decided to bring all four of her chicks into the dining area we’d previously had to ourselves.  And then one of her buddies decided to cruise on by and see if he’d have better luck coaxing some food out of us..
zoo 14“I am GORGEOUS and you should feed me!
We actually resisted,although one of the chicks found a pita chip crumb by my foot..
zoo 15
zoo 16
..They stopped by a few times.  We were delightfully surrounded, and the last time Mamma Peahen came by, she brought another peahen with her.  Yay!

We wandered a bit more and decided to go back to Wild Africa.  Success!  The giraffes were out!  Now, I have to say I’ve never been that awestruck by giraffes.  But last year, when Bones took me to this zoo, we walked by this area and I was overcome by emotion at seeing these beautiful creatures up so close.  So…umm..yeah, I wanted to feed them.  Very much so.  And as always, Bones was willing to indulge me.

zoo 17
It’s hard to see, but this is a huge ‘savannah’ sort of enclosure  The platform we’re standing on is..well, you can imagine it’s pretty dang high up.  There are a handful of giraffes that are experts at getting as much greenery as possible from zoo visitors – it’s just iceberg – and the zebra, ostriches, and baby giraffes look on, hoping for a scrap or two.
zoo 18zebra says, ‘screw you guys, I’m going home’
..And then it was my turn to feed a giraffe!  Despite having watched others, I was way not prepared for that almost prehensile tongue action…
zoo 1
zoo 2
zoo 3
All gone!
Exhausted, we called it a day after I had about 10 more minutes of gazing adoringly at the giraffes.  Home, to once again shower and sleep.
All told, a weekend full of glorious adventure!!

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