Thankful Thursday: Dollar Days At Zoo Knoxville

The last time I went to the zoo was back when the kids's dad and I were still together; I went as a discounted field trip chaperone with Eden's class early that year, and then later that same year I went again with Joey's class. Both times, I entered the zoo with an eager anticipation that rivaled that of the kids around me - I have always believed that going to the zoo is one of the best possible ways to get a close-up look at some of the world's most majestic and beautiful creatures, and since it's not something I can afford to do often, it's always a much-appreciated treat. (I even included a zoo trip as a date in Prescription For Love, one of the Kingsley Series novels.)

I suspect I will always love going to the zoo - and I maintain that that's only partly due to the fact that I happen to be a painfully introverted person who loves animals almost more than people.

So you can imagine how surprised I was to realize that for the last several years, I had completely forgotten about Zoo Knoxville's annual Dollar Days - despite the fact that since the last time I was there, our zoo has welcomed not one, not two, but THREE new Western Lowland Gorillas to our troop. And I really, REALLY, REALLY wanted to see them.

Gorillas in general have been on my list of top favorite animals for many years, but I truly love the way my local zoo has worked to facilitate the repopulation of the critically endangered Western Lowland Gorilla. (Millennials might remember Harambe, a male Western Lowland Gorilla who was shot and killed after attacking a toddler who had gotten into an enclosure - older generations will likely also remember Koko, a female Western Lowland Gorilla who learned sign language and even adopted and cared for her own pets.) I love their expressive faces, their fearsome power, and their undeniable intelligence - what I don't love is that the "critically endangered" label means they're next to extinct in the wild. According to the WWF, there isn't a good estimate on the population levels of these animals, but according to Dictionary Central, the "critically endangered" label is often given when a species drops below 50 "mature individuals" - so having a fresh new generation of this beautiful species right in my town is definitely a source of excitement for me - even if the girls don't share my level of THRILLED.

*affiliate disclaimer at the bottom of post*

This past weekend, through Zoo Knoxville's annual Dollar Days promotional, I was blessed with the opportunity to take the girls to our local zoo, and we had a great time despite both the November cold and the Dollar Day crowds. As previously mentioned, a zoo trip is a rare treat for Team Kennedy, as attractions like this one are usually pretty far beyond the justifiable limitations of my particular budget, but I couldn't pass up the chance to take my kids to the zoo for just $1 a ticket - so I checked the weather, chose a Dollar Day that looked good (we went on Sunday, November 12), ordered our tickets online to reserve our places, and waited anxiously for the day to come.

Saturday afternoon we headed out to pick up some groceries, and the girls both perked up when we went down the drink aisle at Walmart because aside from my coffee addiction (and the herbal green teas we love) my girls and I are almost exclusively water drinkers, and it's rare that I buy sodas or juices at all. However, they both like flavored carbonated waters (Check out our favorite brand on Amazon!) quite a lot, and we almost always pick some up when we're headed on an outing. So when I turned down the drink aisle and told them each to "pick two bottles," they exchanged excited looks and started chattering about which flavors they would choose.

"One's for tonight with dinner," I said, grinning. By this time I had been keeping my little zoo secret for over a week, and I was about ready to burst. The girls looked slightly downcast to learn that we weren't going anywhere special, but they perked right back up again when I followed with an excited, "The other one's for tomorrow."

Once we left Wal-Mart, we had one other stop to make - the Office Depot on the other side of the strip mall. I knew the tickets for the zoo had to be purchased in advance, but I wasn't sure if I needed them in hand or if showing the barcode from my confirmation email would work, so I wanted the tickets printed just in case. Inside the store, I forwarded the confirmation info to the required email address, and said, "If you could print this discreetly, please."

The guy at the computer looked a little confused until I gave the girls a side-eye to let him know I didn't want them to see anything, and I grinned a little harder as I watched his brows come together in confusion. His face lit up when he opened the email and saw what I was asking him to print; he smiled widely, clicked his mouse a few times, hit a couple of keys, and handed me a few sheets of paper fresh from the printer. Still smiling like a kid at Christmas.

I smiled back, excited about the surprise and happy that he hadn't blown it, and said, "Thanks. What do I owe you?"

His smile grew wider still, and he had an adorable twinkle in his eyes as he said, "I got it. You girls have a great time tomorrow." It was a great start to our trip, for sure.

Sunday morning we woke up a little later than I had planned, and we laid around for a while playing a game of 20 questions; the girls tried hard to figure out where we were going, and I tried hard not to give hints that would blow my surprise. We left the house a little later than I had planned too, but we were all in good spirits even as I realized we needed to make an unplanned stop at the grocery store. I had forgotten to pick up extra canned goods to donate at the Zoo's food drive, so the kids and I walked the aisles for a few minutes, choosing suitable items for donation.

By the time we got to the zoo, it was already SUPER crowded and we had missed the chance to get good parking, so we took the best parking we could find, gathered our bags of donation items, and headed out on foot. Fifteen minutes later, we made our way through the entrance to the Zoo.

Our zoo has a long and varied history, but its most prominent achievement will probably always be the successful efforts this organization makes every day to restore animals of varying endangerment to better standing in the world.

Just inside the entrance to the zoo is Black Bear Falls, so the kids and I headed there first, hoping to get a look. The North American Black Bear isn't endangered at all, but our zoo provides a home for bears no longer fearful of humans - it gives them a safe home while protecting us from invading bears. We didn't get to see the bears that day though, as they all seemed to be hiding - except for one, who was just far enough behind a rock to block our view.

Leaving Black Bear Falls, there was an Asian pagoda-style building advertising the new "Asian Trek" Tiger enclosure, so we headed up that way to check out the tiger - who put on a great show of stalking slowly back and forth through a beautifully arranged exhibit. I could have done without the part where we stood in a crowd of about 50 people watching a Tiger potty show, though. Kinda kills the majesty of the tiger, just a little.

From there, we walked up to check out the River Otters, which were Eden's favorite animal the last time she went to the zoo (they very narrowly beat out the Red Pandas for the honored top spot), and we also stopped in for a quick spin on the carousel, which is still one of Joey's favorite parts of anything. The girls loved the carousel and the one otter who came out to show off for us, but neither were terribly impressed with the reptile exhibits, as neither of them are very fond of such things. I, however, fell instantly in love with the beautiful coloring of an Emerald Tree Boa.

Leaving the reptiles, we made our way back down, had another glimpse at the Tiger enclosure (no Tiger in sight this time) and stopped in to visit the Red Pandas, which were exactly as impossibly cute as we remembered them being. Only one was out to be looked at, but he did a great deal of pacing for us to watch and spent several minutes munching contentedly on ... something. Our zoo has had a huge impact on the population of Red Pandas over the years, and I'm amazed at how large our Red Panda family has grown. Apparently, the Knoxville Zoo is the number one zoo in the world for breeding these beautiful animals in an effort to raise their populations - and now, our Red Panda family is slowly spreading all over the world.

By this time, the kids and I were ready for some excitement - and some lunch! We dropped in at Wee Play Adventure for a few minutes, where the girls ran off some energy in the little playground while I wandered around examining the Komodo Dragon exhibits, then we made our way further up into the West Side of the Zoo. We saw Penguins, Peccaries, and Elephants, and then we stopped in to watch the Southern White Rhinos.

Both Rhinos were very active (including another pee show - and I'm pretty sure Rhinos have Brandi-sized bladders, just saying) and interesting to watch, and I was able to pull a great lesson about trying to do good in the world for my kids. We chatted with a Zoo volunteer for a while, and were all quite saddened to learn that in the wild, a Rhino's life expectancy is only 8-9 years due to the significant threat of poaching. I asked, "If there was no poaching threat, what would the life expectancy be then?"

And I was even more saddened when the answer was, "We don't really know. There isn't a lot of data on that." The conversation went on, and I learned that despite the life expectancy, the expected life span of a protected Southern White Rhino is about 40-50 years - pretty impressive! The Rhinos at our zoo are 49 years old, so while I discussed that with my girls, I made sure to tell them that while there are lots of people who think zoos are a form of cruel animal entrapment (and I'm not denying that some certainly can be), the Zoo can also be a place of safety and restoration for animals that are threatened or endangered in the wild. I love that our local zoo is filled with people who genuinely care about the animals who live there.

Continuing up the path, we walked up to admire the Giraffes before heading back down to Aldo's Grill for lunch - which worked out well, because when we left the restaurant and moved on to the Baboon enclosure ... well, let's just say I'm glad Eden wasn't paying enough attention to have seen what Joey and I saw. That baboon was ... excited. About things.

I saw a baboon boner, okay? Honestly, I'm still traumatized. I was almost as embarrassed by that as when a grasshopper almost killed me. Josephine nearly laughed herself to death.

From there, we watched a couple of African Lions (one male and one female, though I think we have more at our zoo) lolling in the grass in their enclosures. It was getting a bit cold by that time though, and Joey and I were sharing her gloves, passing them back and forth every few minutes to keep our hands warm - and while I was proud that both girls somehow managed to think of putting their gloves in their coat pockets before we left the house, I was definitely wishing I had thought to bring mine along!

After the lions, I discovered the one thing I actually don't like about the Zoo - the fact that the trail through our 53-acre attraction isn't circular. So you go up one way through the Asian Trek and end with the reptiles, but then have to come back down, go up another way toward the lions, come back down again, and then go up a third way to see the animals at Gorilla Valley and Chimp Ridge. Neither of these trails is impossibly long, so it's not that big of a deal, except that it would make the trip around the zoo a little more efficient time-wise, which would allow more time to view each exhibit before needing to move on. As it was, the girls and I were at the zoo for about five hours, and we still hadn't seen everything by the time we left. We did see the most important thing though ...

Which brings me to my #1, all-day-every-day, can't-be-beat, favorite part of the Knoxville Zoo. I mean seriously, I didn't think to even take pictures. I just stood there like a fool with my hands clasped beneath my chin, thoroughly embarrassing my kids with my uncontained joy as I watched the Western Lowland Gorillas interact behind the wall of glass that opened their indoor viewing area to the transfixed humans on the other side. The gorillas were my absolute biggest thrill of the day (aside from being able to surprise the kids with the trip), and I'm not sure I'll ever get over the cuteness of watching one of the older babies crawl up on its mother to take her by the face and kiss her over and over again.

Thankfulness is a common theme that spans the length and breadth of the world wide web throughout the month of November - and this blog, while quite different from others in many ways, is not different in this. Like most other people, as Thanksgiving approaches, I tend to naturally think more about what I'm thankful for. And this year, one of the things I'm most thankful for is programs like Zoo Knoxville's Dollar Days, not only because it allowed me to plan and execute a great surprise outing for my family, but because it allows other families who maybe couldn't afford zoo trips to be able to go.

Imagine trying to go to the zoo if you were a two parent family with four kids - you'd be looking at over $100 just to get in the door, and that wouldn't count food, drinks, souvenirs, etc! For many families and especially for larger families, the price of entry sets the Zoo firmly out of reach - but Dollar Days opens the door for families of all sizes and styles to enjoy the wonder of creatures many of us would never see otherwise.

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  1. we should all be so thankful!!!

    1. It was definitely a great day! I'm still totally thrilled to have been able to share that with my kiddos!


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