Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

A December Afternoon at the Memphis Zoo

Words and photos by Ken Billett

Thabo roared a hoarse greeting as Emily and I walked between a man-made rock outcropping separating the Caracals (those smallish cats with the crazy-looking pointed ears) from the Sumatran Tiger Plexi-glass viewing window. “What’s that?” I asked.

“I think that’s the male lion roaring,” Emily responded.

“Sounds more like a squawk than a roar.”

We hurried back to the African Lion exhibit and watched as Thabo, the twelve-year-old male lion, stalked and stormed his way towards us. Fortunately, we were on the other side of a wire barrier. Thabo stared at us for a moment and then found a nearby rock to rub up against. We left the King of the Forest to his rock and walked back over to the Tiger exhibit. This time we stood along the railing in the uncovered viewing area, watching Dari and her two cubs—now eight months old—frolic and play in the frigid afternoon temperatures. The cubs, Suci and her brother, Nakal, obviously enjoyed this weather.

I had on two layers of warm clothing, yet I was still freezing.

Emily talked about the tiger cubs with an older gentleman, who was close by. The man, apparently a zoo regular, gave her the full 4-1-1 on the young tigers. I wandered away to look at some of the other Big Cats.

Need to keep moving to stay warm, I told myself.

On a Tuesday afternoon in mid-December, Emily and I decided to visit the Memphis Zoo to take advantage of free admission Tuesdays (after 2 p.m.) for Tennessee residents. On that pre-holiday afternoon, however, the temps never rose above 43 degrees and, thanks to a mild MidSouth fall, our bodies weren’t quite acclimated to the brisk cold. Adding to our misery, the sun never fully came out that afternoon and there was a constant damp breeze.

Nevertheless, we braved the cold weather to catch up with another old friend (read A Pictorial Love Letter to The Pink Palace). For years, we were dedicated Memphis Zoo members, enjoying all the benefits of that membership, and spending countless summer afternoons checking out the goats and chickens at Once Upon A Farm or laughing at the silly penguins (as we called them) in their nearby faux Antarctic habitat.

Emily and her brother, Zach, attended Zoo Camp several summers in-a-row—a picture of them wearing their tie-dyed Zoo Camp t-shirts still adorns our kitchen fridge. (The recent layoffs in the Zoo’s Education Department were particularly sad news for us.) Nevertheless, time marched on. Our children grew older and found other things to do on the weekends. Eventually, they both went off to college. At some point, we let our family membership expire.

I couldn’t tell you the last time I’d been to the Memphis Zoo. Emily’s visited a few times over the past several years. We’d kept up with the improvements, the changes, the parking controversy, and other zoo news.

Like many Memphians, we take pride (pun intended) in the Memphis Zoo and the great work they do—a world-class facility and a jewel in the city’s crown.

A visit was long overdue.

Located close to the main entrance, Cat Country, still my favorite after all these years, was, naturally, our first stop. I’m glad we went there first, before my feet and hands grew numb. I loved watching the big cats—particularly the cougars, leopards, and jaguars—along with the somewhat smaller cats, like the fishing cats.

Since we had a limited amount of time, Emily decided to skip Once Upon A Farm and, instead, take a quick peek at those silly penguins. A small flotilla of the flightless birds leisurely swam around their watery enclosure. With their sleek swimming style and what appeared to be synchronized turns, the black-and-white fleet made its way from one side of the pool to the other. Several children, probably early elementary age, pointed to the penguins and one child called out, “Mom, look, penguins!”

I love that wide-eyed wonder that children possess.

We walked to the China exhibit, now home to the red pandas and, more recently, two clouded leopards, who arrived in early December from the Nashville Zoo. Neither the always entertaining Asian river otters nor the Langur monkeys could be found along the river’s shoreline, which led over to the main viewing area. Both sets of animals were likely hunkered down in an enclosed—and warm—sleeping area.

In the main exhibit area, the red pandas seemed to enjoy the warmth of their new surroundings. Unfortunately, the clouded leopards were not on display when we stopped by.

Emily and I meandered over to the Northwest Passage, but were unable to find the polar bears. Nor did we see the California sea lions.

Clearly, the Zoo’s animals knew to stay indoors and keep warm.

Unlike the human visitors.

We did see the bald eagles, who look both majestic and menacing. The eagles mostly ignored us, which was fine with me.

A little disappointed by a lack of wildlife sightings and growing even more chilled as the sun began its early winter descent, we checked in next door at Teton Trek. Thankfully, the animals inhabiting this Yellowstone National Park replica thoroughly enjoyed December’s cold temps and chilly wind. The grizzlies lounged and lumbered, while the wolves played and rambled throughout their habitat. On our way out of Teton Trek, a majestic elk came out of its shelter and stood watch over the surroundings.

Observing these amazing creatures made me forget about the cold…at least for a little while.

We had a long hike (sorry) back to the Zoo’s entrance, and both Emily and I were a bit tired. But, first, Emily insisted we make a stop at the African Veldt. Why? Giraffes.

Yes, giraffes.

The giraffes—another family favorite—were a “must see” when our kids were younger. Obviously, that hadn’t changed. While not quite as silly as the penguins, the giraffes—with those incredibly long necks—did not disappoint. And they didn’t seem to mind the cold. Or, the people gawking and, at times, joking about their long black tongues.

Along with the wide-eyed wonder of the children staring up at those wonderful creatures.

My daughter, included.

Our zoo visit ended about where we started. This time we stood at the exterior portion of Cat Country watching Thabo and two female African lions watch us. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a mighty goodbye roar from Thabo. But pictures were taken, fingers were pointed, questions asked. The wonder of the children, and the adults, reminded me, quite sadly, that, eventually, people may only be able to see wild and exotic animals in zoos or aquariums.

That’s a key reason why the Memphis Zoo is important.

And a jewel in the city’s crown.

Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively. StoryBoard Memphis is proud to present Ken’s columns Time Capsules and Get out of Town as ongoing features here on StoryBoard.

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