DETROIT—All quality big-city zoos have lots of animals, paved pathways, strollers for rent, hot dogs to buy and stuffed critters to bring home. Many have little trains that, for a little extra, haul people around the grounds. Many have artists who will paint butterflies on little girls' faces. Some have carousels . . .
. . . And, we've learned, every one has something to treasure.We visited four Midwest favorites, each zoo within a comfortable day's drive from Chicagoland's very own. Here's what we discovered.
Any reports of eaten fingers?
"They actually have flat teeth, and they're very tiny," said onsite educator Will Bruner, who was talking about the sharks, not the kids. "If they wanted to bite, they really couldn't do anything."
What the 3-foot beasties evidently will do when patience is tested (as when abused by one undercautious tot) is skim madly on their tails across the top of the water like something very scary out of " Jurassic Park."
Milwaukee County Zoo has what they call "Prey and Predator" exhibits. Here, animals live side by side with other animals that, in the real world, would tear them to pieces and digest them without regret.
One of these exhibits places a pair of cheetahs alongside a small herd of impalas, the two groupings separated by an invisible (to us) moat that doesn't stop the cheetahs from ogling the impalas nor the impalas from keeping tabs on the precise whereabouts of the cheetahs.
This all looks reasonably benign -- except to those of us who, on a recent safari to East Africa, actually watched a pair of youthful cheetahs pull down a youthful Thompson's gazelle and, with mom's help, tear it to pieces.
Then there's Detroit. Ah, Detroit.
The smaller of the two magnificent grizzlies sharing outdoor space at the Detroit Zoo lowered his backside over the swim pond and, quite massively and with the sound of a modest avalanche, did what free-range bears famously do in the woods.
Instantly, moms pivoted strollers in the opposite direction. Dads shut off video-cams. Little girls went "eeeeeuuuwww."
But one lad, likely in his mid-teens and with a ball cap backward on a head in desperate need of a haircut, put it all in perspective with a single shouted word:
And as for the St. Louis Zoo (officially, the Saint Louis Zoo): It's just a great zoo. Of course, the cooling-fans help.
Each, we found, is worth the effort to get there, even with today's gas prices, for a variety of reasons.
Let's start with the economics.
Admission for two adults and a pair of kids 12 and under will cost about $40 total in Detroit, Milwaukee and Indianapolis. Admission in St. Louis is zero. Parking at these zoos will cost $5 to $10.
To compare: Admission for two adults and a pair of kids to Six Flags in Gurnee will (assuming no one has a discount device) set the family back $179.96 -- plus $15 for parking. That $40 total for zoo admissions won't even buy one midsummer bleacher ticket at Wrigley anymore . . . but that's another column.