Like many parents, my wife and I are always looking out for ways to keep our daughters entertained and for things for them to do. And few things keep them more entertained than Netflix on the iPad. When they get on a program jag, like they have recently been with the British cartoon “Horrid Henry”, then will watch repeatedly watch 30 shows ad nauseum, and to the point where I become nauseous over girls non-stop singing of the show’s theme song, complete with their attempts at a British accent.
And let’s be honest…Were it not for the placating effects of Netflix and the iPad, our kids might just starve because how else would we find the time to get dinner together? We already referee enough skirmishes between our adorable little girls to make the U.S. Marines’ battles with the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive look like a playground game of foursquare.
But, we also try to get our kids out of the house and to see the world, too. And since these are kindergarten-age children we are talking about, we have found that the zoo is a brilliant location for the girls to get out and about for a while. And the fact that taking them there also falls under the guise of “education”, we get to feel like we are Good Parents in the process.
Since we live in Oakland, we often take Maddo and Little Sis to the Oakland Zoo, which is within spitting distance of our house. There are lions and tigers and [a] Malaysian Sun Bear there, oh my. Three big African elephants, a few camels, a bunch of giraffes and zebras, among other beasts of the wild, populate the zoo and give the girls something to do out in the fresh air of a Bay Area afternoon.
However, just like it’s good to throw different things at your kids for dinner [even if they ONLY want to eat Kraft Macaroni and Cheese or McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets no matter how often you push broccoli on their plates] it doesn’t hurt to mix up the wildlife-viewing experience from time to time. Which is why my wife and I recently chose to take our girls to the San Francisco Zoo for the first time.
[I should clarify that a bit. It was actually the second time Maddo had been to the S.F. Zoo. I took her there once a couple of months ago for another kid’s birthday party. Little Sis would have gone, too, but she decided she would rather spend the day throwing up all over her bed, the bathroom and the living room floor. So, depending on your perspective, either I, or my wife, drew the short straw and I ended up taking Maddo over to the zoo that day.]
But to be honest, were it not for that trip, I can’t say that the thought of loading up our gang of non-stop noisemakers to spend more than an hour getting to one zoo when another perfectly fine animal hotel exists about 15 minutes from our front door would have crossed my mind. There are animals is S.F. that don’t reside in Oakland. And I thought it would good for our daughters to get some exposures to a new group of wild creatures.
That was all before we got to the toll plaza.
Among the most-famous things many people know San Francisco for is the Golden Gate Bridge, also known as the most-popular place in country for someone to take a header to their death. But while the Golden Gate handles a respectable amount of daily traffic, driving across it is like going on Disneyland’s It’s A Small World ride compared to the experience of crawling through the confluence of cars that meet up at what locals call The Maze.
Three highways full of traffic converge at one place where everyone has to pay a toll to then go across the Bay Bridge that leads from Oakland to San Francisco. Several lanes are dedicated to one of those Fast Pass systems, but they make no difference in speeding through the traffic. That’s because there are thousands of cheapskates like me that only use the bridge once or twice a year, and who clog up the road while trying to angle our way into one of only about three cash-only lanes. And never mind those jerks who race down the Fast Pass lanes only to almost cause a multi-car disaster when they try to jam into the cash-payment slot at the last second.
[And yes, I’m looking at you there in that Lexus SUV with the “Co-Exist” and “I’m Ready For Hillary” bumper stickers who nearly T-boned me just as I was about to make it to the toll gate itself. I hope you blew a tire out when you got over to Pier 39.]
It took us about 45 minutes to get from our house across the bridge, a distance of around 15 miles. By this time, I was madder than a Texas oil fire, Little Sis was bawling about how hungry she was, and Maddo left no doubt about what she wanted to see and do when she got to the zoo…
Me: So, sweetie. What do you want to see first? The kangaroos? The hippo? How about the Grizzly Bears?
Maddo [Slight pause for effect]: I want to see the prairie dogs! And get some ice cream!
Me [After nearly steering our car off the road] You want to see WHAT?
Maddo: Prairie Dogs!
Little Sis: Yeah…PRAIRIE DOGS!
I nearly had a coronary. The San Francisco Zoo has TWO kinds of rhinos. There are lions. There are even man-eating tigers [well, there was one a few years back who got loose and made a meal out of some punk that was taunting him]. And what did my kids want to see more than anything else? Some glorified farmland rats. Awesome.
After about an hour of winding through San Francisco’s almost un-navigable city streets, we saw the Pacific Ocean. This was a Good Thing, because the zoo is literally across the road from that big pond of saltwater. It’s so close to the ocean that the zoo is almost an aquarium. We parked, walked about half a mile back to the entrance, paid our 56 bucks just to get in the door, and we were on our way.
That was until Little Sis decided to throw a fit right before we got to the ticket takers that were only about 50 feet away. I can’t even remember what she lost her mind about. It might have been because she didn’t get to give the tickets to the ticket taker, it may have been because we didn’t let her have any Cheetos right away. All I know for sure is that everyone else was eyeing us like we were in the giraffe area. Which was the first place we went once we got over Little Sis’ avalanche of tears.
For the most part, the rest of the visit was uneventful. We saw everything we came to see: the gorillas, the polar bears, the kangaroos, the monkeys, the penguins. We saw them all. The girls were even good enough that we splurged on some overprice ice cram and popcorn, which, of course, the girls wanted even though they devoured the PB&J sandwiches and Cheetos we brought for lunch.
But all the way through, they kept reminding us what then wanted to see more than anything else:
“CAN WE SEE THE PRAIRIE DOGS, NOW, DADDY?” Maddo blurted out every five minutes.
Little Sis joined her sister, creating Greek Chorus of pre-school voice begging:
“YEAH, DADDY! CAN WE SEE THE PRAIRIE DOGS!”
Well, finally, after almost three hours of tramping around, we made it to the prairie dogs. You would have thought our daughters had discovered Santa’s home at the North Pole. “Oohs” and “Aahs” were everywhere as the girls squealed with happiness at the little vermin. The area included a short “tunnel” that the girls could crawl through and then pop their heads up to see the prairie dogs at their eye level. It was all cute and sweet and Goddamn could we have saved ourselves a day’s worth of nagging if we had just taken the girls there first.
But oh well. Even though we were at the end of our visit, we weren’t done.
That’s because we still had to make a stop at the zoo’s guest services office. Why? Well, when my wife bought a pretzel earlier in the day, the vendor asked if we were S.F. Zoo members, as that would have gotten us a discount on our twisted, salty doughy snack. We told him we weren’t, but with a bit of hope, I mentioned we were members of the Oakland Zoo.
“Oh,” the pretzel guy replied. “Did you get your discount when you came in?”
I greeted him with a stunned look, “Uh, what discount?
Apparently, Oakland and San Francisco have a cross-zoo relationship. Show your membership card and you get 50% off your entry fee. I’m not a cheapskate, but paying $28 for the four of us would have been a lot less of a hit on my wallet than the $56 we ended up shelling out.
There is a catch. Apparently, knowing about this discount is kind of like knowing about the Secret Menu at In-N-Out Burger. I never saw anything on the S.F. Zoo website regarding getting a discount with my Oakland Zoo membership, and there was nothing promoting such a deal anywhere around the ticket booth, either.
No big deal, I thought. I’ll just go to guest services, show my Oakland Zoo membership card, explain what happened and we’ll get a refund and be on our way. Of course, it went nothing like that at all.
“No. We can’t do anything since your ticket stub was torn off,” said a woman who was about as pleasant as a case of Poison Ivy.
“But, there was no way I would have known this before coming in here,” I replied. “The only reason I found out was because one of your employees inside here told me about it.”
“Sorry,” she said with a voice that registered zero on the sympathy Richter Scale. “Can’t do anything.”
I then pleaded my case to the college-age girl working in the ticket booth. She looked like it was her first day on the job and couldn’t find the ticket window that was less than a foot away from her face. My request fell on her deaf ears. We were S.O.L.
Like a cranky old man, I played a version of the old “I’M A TAXPAYER!” line and told the girl that I’d be “writing a letter to your boss!” She stared at me like the weirdo I was and mumbled something like “Uhhh…Okay….”
From there, we headed back to our car, paid the $8 fee to get out of the parking lot, drove straight into the teeth of San Francisco’s rush hour battle, and inched our way toward the Bay Bridge. As we sat stuck in traffic, and knowing that we had more than an hour of such soul-crushing car crawling ahead of us, I turned to my daughters.
“Hey girls,” I asked them as they were in the middle of tattling on each other for something insane. “What was your favorite animal you saw today?”
I knew what their response would be, and they were loud and clear about it:
“THE PRAIRIE DOGS, DADDY!”
Of course, girls. Of course.