If Mia knew how to say bear or fruit bat in Somali, she sure wasn’t in the mood to share it with me. The sun was hanging high between plump, puffy clouds that marked the sky with an overcast appearance. For spring, the Florida humidity was a killer and made a trip to Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo a little tough to handle, but we managed well. I was tagging along with my friend Muna and her 17-month-old niece, Mia, for the day. Muna had been trying to focus her energies on being a good aunt and figured a zoo trip would be perfect for the little one. Though there were times I think Mia would have preferred a trip elsewhere, she did manage to sit quietly and give the animals a half glance when they so deserved her attention. I was impressed. Of course, this was all show, as Muna assured me she normally wasn’t so well behaved.
I was delighted to be at the zoo. I hadn’t been since I was a kid. Child Magazine apparently ranked Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo the number-one zoo in the USA in 2004. That’s what was printed on the zoo brochure the woman handed me when I got my ticket, and after flipping through the pages, I could see why. Zoos had come along way since I was a youngin’, but I took my eyes from the glossy foldout and placed them on one of the most bizarre birds I had seen. I believe it was called an emu, but it resembles an ostrich of sorts. The emu was only the beginning.
From there, we discovered the hideouts of fruit bats, singing dogs, and koi swimming in a man-made pond. I personally prefer the term "giant killer goldfish" when it comes to koi, but that would be far from scientifically correct, even though the fish do look like giants and possibly killer goldfish. Keeping in the direction we had set out on, we headed next to the petting zoo.
When you’re at the petting zoo, you’ll notice the little machines where a token earns you a nibbling of food for the anxious goats and llamas on the other side of the fence. None of us were really wild about furry llamas lips in the palm of our hands, so we watched as others fed the hungry zoo creatures. Hands-on wasn’t a necessity. After our brief pause here, Muna began to zip the stroller with quiet Mia to the area that piqued all of our interests - Safari Africa.
In Safari Africa, you’ll find all the greatest animals on Earth! In my own opinion, giraffes rule, zebras are cool, and elephants know how to really rock the party, or stampede at the very least. I went a little overboard taking pictures of the long-legged giraffes, as another token grants you access to feed them and take great close-up photos. Strangely enough, Mia found enjoyment from the warm breath of the giraffes, though the long black tongues were a bit foreign to us all.
Next on our agenda was getting Mia onto a camel for her very first camel ride. Muna said that her grandmother in Somalia had a camel farm that she never had the opportunity to experience but knew the family would be delighted to know Mia rode on one, even if was only at the Lowry Park Zoo. Camels are slow, dragging creatures, and I still can’t figure out how they manage to hold the weight of lazy human bodies that so often ride them. Our camel’s name was Hank, and he was no exception to the description I just provided. Muna hopped onto Hank first, and the zoo attendant assisted in getting Mia placed in front of Muna for the ride. I’m not certain if Mia knew she was riding on a camel judging by the way she banged on his hump like a drum, but all the same, she remained calm and cool. Mia, by far, was one of the coolest kids at the zoo if that hadn’t already been established.
The heat was getting to us all at this point. The water in the vending machines was just a little too overpriced for me, and I wanted to get some place with A/C. Taking a quick look at the zoo brochure and map, I spotted the Manatee and Aquatic Center. Score! A sure place for air-conditioning and an opportunity to hang out in huge aquariums made this the cream of the zoo crop. Of course, there is required speeding past some of the other animals, like deer, but you can catch deer on almost any long drive on any highway, even in places near the beach it seems. Deer are boring, and they don’t have air-conditioned spots to hang out in and gaze at them, so pass.
The Manatee and Aquatic Center is fabulous, a sure plus to the already well-developed zoo. They had a pretty decent amount of manatee swimming in the huge tanks and various other underwater creatures sharing what space was left. Muna parked the stroller in front of one of the tanks with Mia’s back to the tank. Even before she turned the stroller in the opposite direction, I don’t think Mia realized she was watching huge manatee swim past, and if she did, she didn’t really give a hoot. We hung out here for quite some time, sucking in all the air we could before realizing the time.
It was very much time to leave, as we both had things to do, but bidding farewell to a trip to the zoo can be hard, and we robbed Father Time of whatever little bit of time we could steal. We zoomed past stingrays, river otters, turtles, American alligators, and Florida panthers on our way out. "Hello and Farewell," we yelled!
A day at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo really requires a day’s worth of your time but will be much worth it for any child or adult. There were so many sites and attractions we still hadn’t taken advantage of, like the Treetop Safari, Birds of Prey Theater, and Pony Trek, among several others.
I know deep down inside that Mia had one of the best times of her life.
If you go, the Lowry Park Zoo is located at:
1101 West Sligh Ave.
Tampa, FL 33604
Contact them in advance for additional information by phone or check out their website: 813/935-8552/www.lowryparkzoo.com