It was just after 10:00 AM when my plane touched down in Los Angeles. Having flown out of the Washington, DC area, I had been awake for some seven hours. This was my first trip to LA; my first time on the West Coast, and I knew exactly how I wanted to start it.
This trip wasn’t a vacation, though. I came to Los Angeles as an educational consultant for an international organization invested in the success and advancement of high school students. I teach teachers. It’s a job that I adore and one I was only recently extended the opportunity to pursue along with my full-time high school teaching position. Not only do I love facilitating professional learning sessions to my colleagues around the country, but the position offers me the opportunity to see different places, like LA, while supplementing my income enough to support my leisure travel addiction.
This professional workshop brought me, and eight of my teaching colleagues, to Los Angeles. My flight arrived a bit early, and within fifteen minutes of the arrival time of two of my colleagues who were flying in from New England. We made arrangements to meet up at baggage claim and share an Uber to our hotel.
Finding transportation from LAX is intimidating due to the sheer size of the airport, but rideshare services and taxis are plentiful and easy to connect with once you understand the system at LAX. The arrivals area is very clearly labeled on the exterior to indicate exactly where a party is standing to be picked up. Our Uber driver found us with no issue.
Because our professional obligations didn’t start until early the next morning, we each had plans for how we intended to spend some downtime in Los Angeles. For this thirty-six-year-old teacher on her first trip to LA, there was only one option. Was it Beverly Hills? The Santa Monica Pier? Universal Studios Hollywood? No. I took myself, by myself, to the Los Angeles Zoo, and I’m not the least bit ashamed.
While my colleagues caught an Uber to Santa Monica for lunch, drinks, and an afternoon on the beach, I slathered myself in sunscreen and Ubered my way towards Griffith Park. My Uber driver, Bill, a studio musician in his seventies, was wildly amused that I was so enthusiastically taking myself to the zoo. “Are you a Biology teacher?” Bill asked. “No. Theatre and Broadcast Journalism,” I answered. Bill liked that even more.
I arrived at the zoo just after noon, and the Los Angeles sun was in full effect. Entrance to the zoo costs $21 for an adult, so I bought my ticket at the kiosk, snagged a map at the gate, and reapplied some sunscreen to my face and exposed shoulders.
Walking through the entrance to the LA Zoo doesn’t feel campy like some zoos and amusement parks I’ve visited. There is a sense of pride here. Paths are clearly marked to direct patrons towards various exhibits and they utilize colors and themes to make each particular journey more clearly identifiable.
On the left of the entry, I came upon the sea lion habitat. Obviously, I am an animal lover, but I never really gave much prior thought to sea lions. Today though, without the pressure of my own kids in tow, no real schedule moving me along, and no huge group of spectators crowding the exhibit, I could take the time to really watch the sea lions. There were about half a dozen sea lions visible and they varied in age and size. The smallest, presumably a baby, was relentlessly throwing himself up out of the water at the rocky platform above. He kept missing with almost comical exaggeration, but his persistence was charming and adorable. Across from him, what appeared to be a giant bull sea lion groaned and laughed at him. I wondered if this was his dad. It certainly reminded me of my own father, lovingly enjoying my foibles as a toddler.
I could have stayed to watch the sea lions play and listened to their laughter all day, but this zoo is enormous and I didn’t want to miss anything. There is also no shade over the sea lion exhibit, and I was starting to burn.
My primary reason for visiting the zoo was located not far from the entrance, so I identified the trail that led to “Walkabout” and headed straight for my target.
Friends, family, and students of mine all know that I am a shark enthusiast. It only takes the mention of something sharky to start me on a tangent from which I may never return. What many people don’t know is that I am almost equally as excited by Koalas. I adore Koalas and am fascinated by their behavior. There are only a handful of places in the USA where one can see Koalas, and when I was asked to facilitate a workshop in Los Angeles, I knew this was my chance to see them.
The “Walkabout” Australia exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo is truly stunning. The flora is beautifully kept and habitats are created to establish and maintain the comfort and security of the animals. While Koalas were my priority visiting this exhibit, they were only one of dozens of species highlighted here. Upon entrance to the outdoor exhibit, I was first struck by the tremendous size of the wallabies near the front. I can’t recall having seen wallabies in person before, they are much larger than I imagined and have a humorous, inquisitive look about them that reminds me, somewhat, of llamas. At first, I thought they were kangaroos, but I was very politely (and somewhat apprehensively) corrected by a rising fourth-grader on a summer camp trip. Well done, young man. It is always right to politely tell someone they have their information wrong when you are better informed. You helped this teacher learn something new!
Next to the wallabies was a tree-laden habitat. At first glance it appeared empty. I scoured the branches with the patience and training I once used to find the hidden images in Waldo books. “There! There they are.” I pointed enthusiastically up to a single branch tucked under a treehouse roof. Two koalas slept soundly, each cuddled into the other with a kind of familial intimacy that suggested siblings. My fourth grade friends and I squealed with delight, pointing out our find to every new person who approached the exhibit. The koalas moved very little during the time that I watched them. I knew to expect this, as their consumption of Eucalyptus causes them to sleep excessively. I was happy to watch them sleep. The occasional twitch of noses and resettling on branches was so sweet and peaceful. The little girl in me, the one whose childhood bedroom boasted koala wallpaper until she was fourteen, could not have been more satisfied with this trip.
The Walkabout exhibit features a special area for multiple animals to interact and play. During my visit, there were various birds, wallabies, and smaller mammals enjoying a little bit more freedom in the open exhibit. Just across from the Walkabout is an enclosed exhibit with a truly remarkable and majestic inhabitant. The exterior of of the exhibit suggests caves and rocky terrain, there’s a sense of mystery as you approach.
I entered the cave area with the same childlike excitement I’d been harboring for hours. As a shark enthusiast, predators are of real interest to me. Behind the glass in the cave area of the Walkabout was one of the more mysterious and ancient predators in existence. Without much notice, I was nose to nose with a Komodo Dragon. The Komodo wasn’t moving. He lay still in his habitat, eyes open, statuesque and just as grand. Looking carefully, I noticed his ribs moving slightly with each breath, but he was otherwise utterly still. “He’s not real,” one of my now familiar fourth grade friends exclaimed. “Oh, he’s real,” I assured her. “He’s a statue,” another young friend corrected me. And then he moved. The Komodo jerked wildly to the side and moved swiftly towards the glass, as if on cue. The children screamed and scattered. The Komodo slashed his tail, stood taller on his toes, and then settled back down to stillness, satisfied with his own performance.
As I moved through the rest of the zoo exhibits, I was continually struck by the obvious level of care with which the habitats are maintained. While captivity is not the ideal circumstance for any creature, the exhaustive efforts made by to Los Angeles Zoo to preserve the health, comfort, and safety of their animals, while committing to extensive conservation and educational outreach efforts, made for a truly enjoyable visit.
Walking down each color-coded path in the scorching late July heat, I couldn’t help but smile to myself. I noticed families and zoo employees alike reacting to the sunburnt lady, grinning to herself while she wondered around the zoo alone. Yes, my colleagues were enjoying drinks on the boardwalk, but I was surrounded by the magic and majesty of nature’s most elusive animals. In my experience, I have plenty of time to be an adult. My time to feel the freedom, unbridled joy, and wonder of childhood are truly limited. I made the perfect choice by taking myself to the Los Angeles Zoo.