I wouldn't call myself a zoo connoisseur, but I've been to a handful in my lifetime. The Great Plains Zoo in Sioux Falls, the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, the Como Zoo in St Paul, the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, the Denver Zoo in (duh) Denver, and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs. They all had their merits, but one zoo has always stood out above the rest.
The Bramble Park Zoo in Watertown, South Dakota.
The Bramble Park Zoo is the zoo I grew up with.
|Same picture, circa 1994.|
Some of my very earliest memories involve me feeding the pushy goats at that zoo. The Bramble Park Zoo was very likely the ONLY zoo I had visited up until a third grade field trip to the Sioux Falls zoo - and after years of the cozy environment of Watertown, I was unimpressed with all their concrete and dust.
The Bramble Park Zoo feels less like a zoo and more like a park that happens to have animals in it. There are winding sidewalks in between grassy patches upon which peacocks roam free, and nearly all of the park is shaded with trees.
|And sometimes the peacocks are albino!|
You can take your time wandering through the park, stopping to take in the enormous pond with its resident fowl, or perhaps feeding the farm animals with handfuls of corn you buy for a quarter.
There was a natural progression to our zoo trips, and the first place we always ALWAYS went was to the birds. The bird house was/still is an enclosed mini-ecosystem that you enter by walking through these plastic hangy-down chains (which were a total blast when you were a kid, but now are mostly just gross).
This little bird area was a large rectangle, and you followed the sidewalk around until you arrived back at the exit. At the opposite end of the entrance was a waterfall and a bridge over a small pond, which was where the ducks and scarlet spoonbills hung out.
The outside was lined with huge greenery-filled cages, housing birds and lemurs. (When Mom and I visited the zoo last fall, we met a 32-year-old lemur named Gwen. She was the best.)
From the birds, our next stop was usually the monkeys. If you've ever been to a zoo EVER, you know that monkeys are hilarious. We could watch them for ages - a typical cast of monkeys rarely failed to include an adorable baby, a shy corner-hider, and the asshole monkey who keeps trying to push his friends off the branches.
After the monkeys, our stops were dictated by the general feeling of the group. We never skipped visiting any of the exhibits, but the order in which we saw them would vary.
The Watertown Zoo had bears and large cats - tigers, panthers, and leopards.
They had bald eagles and a super awesome wingspan chart where you could see how your own wingspan measured up to that of large predatory birds. (I never grew beyond a red-tailed hawk.)
|This is obviously everyone's favorite part.|
There were gorillas and chimpanzees to see, and an alligator at which to marvel. The petting zoo was always a favorite spot, where donkeys let you scratch their necks and goats jostled to be at the front lines to munch feed corn from your outstretched hand. The Watertown Zoo had kangaroos (SO ADORABLE I COULD DIE), along with a pack of three wolves. There was a viewing area where you could peek in for a better view of the wolves, though they typically avoided your gaze. However, when Mom and I visited the zoo on a quiet October day last year, the wolves were totally STANDING IN THE WINDOW AND LOOKING FOR SOME PEOPLE TO EAT. It was amazing/terrifying.
No zoo is complete without a collection of large hoofed animals, and the Watertown Zoo had a stock of buffalo and camels.
We also could not miss the snake house, nor would we bypass the foxes and owls. This place was our own childhood heaven.
And it wasn't just for summer. One winter day, Mom took us three kids to the zoo. It was free to go to the zoo since it was so cold, and we were the only people in sight. It was a relatively mild January day, and honestly? It was the best zoo day I've ever had. Not only were we the only people there, but the animals were out in full force. Many of them were enjoying the cool weather, even though some of them originated from warmer climates. The camels were frolicking, and the wolves were running. The big cats were basking in the winter sunshine, and the bears played with their toys. If you ever get the chance to go to the zoo on a warm(ish) winter day, DO IT: the animals are much happier and will totally show off for you.
In the (many MANY) years since I was young, the Bramble Park Zoo has added a lot of great stuff. When I was in high school, they built an indoor exhibit hall that houses exotic fish, not-so-exotic fish, insects, and reptiles (including a python). They also acquired otters (!!!) and penguins, and super-cool park areas with metal dinosaurs in one and tractors in another.
But since I am a firm believer that zoos are not just for children, I have made plenty of trips to the Bramble Park Zoo to enjoy these later additions. The first time I went to the zoo without my family was when I was 17. I went with my friends Bob and Tiffany, and we roamed the zoo while acting like idiot high schoolers. It was the best, though I'm pretty sure the other zoo-goers would've hated our guts - but in my memory, we were some of a very few people at the zoo that day. Who knows if that's true, but I hope it was for the sake of those who would've had to put up with us.
The summer after I graduated from college, I visited the Bramble Park Zoo not once, but twice. The first time was in mid-July: I had been in Denver for an internship at the art museum, and I had come back to South Dakota for a week to see my sister Darrah off to basic training. For a farewell activity, she chose the Bramble Park Zoo. Darrah and I went with James and our college friends Nate and Sara, and it was a perfect send-off.
The second time I went to the zoo that summer was right before I took off for an internship in New Orleans. Mom and I went to the zoo together as my farewell - it was the first time just Mom and I had gone to the zoo together, and it was wonderful.
|We have an affinity for the dinosaurs.|
Mom and I made another trip to the Bramble Park Zoo last October (remember the hungry wolves?), and we continued our great track-record of visiting the zoo when there were almost no children present. YES.
|There were so few people around that we could to stuff like this and no one would bother us.|
My latest and greatest Bramble Park Zoo experience was just this past summer. The zoo hosted an adults-only (!!!) event called the Sunset Zoofari. You had to be 21 or older to attend, and you would be able to sample wine, beer, and food from around the world while enjoying the animals and having the whole damn place to yourselves. Mom, Dad, and I went, and it was absolutely delightful. We had fish and chips and Vegemite and fry bread and baklava, not to mention cherry cola beer and summer shandy.
We got so caught up eating food and talking to the people at the booths that we ran out of time to see almost all of the animals. (The only animals we saw were the ones along the food trail, like the otters and the bears.)
It was absolutely my favorite day at the zoo thus far, and I'm hopeful they'll do it annually. I'm 100% in.
Moral of the story: the Bramble Park Zoo is the best, and if you haven't been, go there. It's not the biggest zoo in the world, but it's clean and cozy and friendly, and sometimes you can drink beer there. The best.