Road Trip 2017 #17 – Zion and Virgin

We left Duck Creek Village early in the morning and arrived at Zion National Park well before 9am.  Nevertheless, we found the place was already packed with people.  It was a holiday weekend and I can only assume a lot of people had chosen to holiday at Zion.  We drove through the park and occasionally pulled over and exited the car to admire the rock formations and the mesas.  The younger boys loved it when we drove through a mile long tunnel that was pitch black except for the odd window cut out so as to showcase stunning vistas.  Our plan had been to undertake a particular river hike but it was sadly and annoyingly not to be.  There was nowhere to park anywhere near our intended hiking spot so the plan was to park up at the Visitor Centre, get our National Parks passport stamped, and hop on the shuttle bus to get us to where we needed to go.  When we arrived in the vicinity of the Visitor Centre, however, and employee turned us away.  The car parks were heaving.  Even the overflow from the overflow car park was full and there was no remaining space to squeeze into on the adjacent roads.  Our only option was to find a parking spot in the nearest town and then walk back into the National Park.  The idea, however, of walking from town to the Visitor Centre, riding a shuttle bus for several miles, walking to a trail head, and then undertaking a hike through a river, to then do all of that in reverse, was anathema to our kids.  I understood their perspective but still it was completely frustrating to not be able to fulfill one of our plans and to not feel as if we had properly experienced Zion.  I also confess that it made me feel a bit anxious – often the corollary of my control freakery – that we had been in Zion but would not have a Zion stamp in our passport.

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Not much further along the road, we decided to pull over in a place called Virgin so that we could regroup and decide how to portion out our day, given the massive and unexpected change of plans.  The place we happened to pull off the road turned out to be a restaurant (though that was closed), gift shop, and petting zoo.  The younger boys decided they wanted to visit.  Well, why not?  The gift shop was entertaining to poke around in.  It reminded me a little bit of junk shops I used to visit as a child, sifting through the shelves in the hopes of uncovering treasure.  After a bit of rummaging, we picked up our share of carrots and headed out to the petting zoo.  There were llamas, ponies, and donkeys to feed and all of the animals were very friendly and allowed the boys to pet them.  The whole outdoor area was set up like a wild west frontier town so the boys also enjoyed pretending to be in jail, barging through the swing doors of the saloon, and sitting in a covered wagon.  It wasn’t remotely on the list of possibilities of things to do in the area but it was a little slice of Roadside America that perked up the boys’ moods after the frustrations of Zion.  We could then proceed with the rest of our day’s travel and pit stops in brighter moods.

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Wild in Cape May

In the Summer months, it seems like the entire of Philly and its suburbs decamps to the Jersey Shore.  I actually know plenty of people who also head to the coast at regular periods throughout the year.  It appears that the Jersey Shore is the destination of choice for most of our neighbours.  We, however, have only been a couple of times.  This is partly because I don’t like sand and partly because we are contrary besoms.  However, it is mostly because none of us find we can relax in crowded settings.  This is even more so in beach settings because of the experience of losing our youngest child on a crowded beach several years ago.  All of which preamble is to explain why it is, over three years since moving to America, we have only been to the Jersey Shore a couple of times.  Since we had an unseasonably nice day for February last weekend, we decided we should expand our explorations of New Jersey’s coastline and head to Cape May.

Suspecting the beach would still be chilly, we made the focus of our trip the Cape May County Zoo.  The zoo is free which appeals to my thrifty nature but had me concerned about the welfare standards.  Thankfully I was wrong to be cynical as the enclosures actually seemed well designed and considered.

We headed first to the reptile and amphibian house.  The kids and I always spend a lot of time in these areas at zoos so we wanted to prioritise having enough time there.  We were pleased that so many of the snakes, lizards, and frogs were on display in their tanks as quite often they are tucked away in little hollows and can barely be seen.  There were snakes large and small from places near and far; a variety of turtles, including one who was very crinkly and spiky looking; a large alligator; brightly coloured frogs and a chubby frog squashed in the corner of its tank; axolotls and newts; and an iguana riding on a tortoise’s back.

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With the exception of the tiger, which refused to put in an appearance, the mammals too were all out and about and easy for us to see.  My 9 year old was eager to see marsupials for some reason so was delighted to see wallabies lazing around in the sun, looking like they were watching Netflix on the sofa.  We also got to see a brace of black bears.  Aside from the baby black bear that ran across the road in front of us in West Virginia last summer, it was the closest any of us had been to a black bear since one of them was walking right along the fence line.  Its companion, meanwhile, was lying on its back with one leg up in the air against a fence.  In addition to seeing the lions, we heard the male roar.  It was an incredible sound, only the second time my kids have heard a real life lion roar, though the sight of the lions lolling around like large moggies was a bit less awe-inspiring.  There were also leopards – traditional and snow varieties – and a red panda, zebra, giraffes, ostriches, lemurs, and bison.

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We didn’t see all of the animals that inhabit the zoo (there are apparently over 250 species) but because admission was free we didn’t feel like we had to push things and see every last creature.  I would have kept going but the kids were rapidly escalating their hunger levels from peckish to rampagingly hangry so we decided to leave while the going was good and go in search of food.

After a very tasty sojourn in a Mediterranean diner, we headed for the actual shore.  It would have been cruel and unusual of us parents to take the kids to the Jersey Shore for the day and not actually let them anywhere near the beach.  The coast was decidedly chiller than even a short jaunt inland and the sky was darkening quickly but the kids were still determined to have fun.  We forget sometimes that these kids were used to playing on beaches year round on the west coast of Scotland and are pretty hardy and determined as a result.  They all kicked off their shoes within minutes and, while two of them did a sort of Chariots of Fire run along the sand, two of them lifted up their trouser legs to have a bit of a paddle in the Atlantic.  A bit of a paddle, however, turned into a wade and – before we could even issue a warning they would no doubt have ignored anyway – two of them ended up soaked.  Their answer was to just peel off their sodden trousers and continue playing in the surf.  Our youngest child was, therefore, frolicking in the sea with bare legs and a winter coat.  He looked hysterically ridiculous but he was having an absolute whale of a time.  Sometimes the boys just really need to be feral in the great outdoors.

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I couldn’t come to the coast and not see a lighthouse so our final destination for the day, as day slipped into night, was the Cape May Lighthouse.   The current lighthouse was built in 1859 and is the third incarnation of a lighthouse at that spot.  I guess third time was the charm.  I arrived too late to enter the lighthouse so I just had to content myself with looking at it.  Maybe some day I will return and force myself up the claustrophobic spiral staircase in order to see the view.

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Road Trip #19 – National Zoo

I first visited the National Zoo in 1995 when living in Washington DC for three months while my then-boyfriend-now-husband was working as an intern.  As a UK national, I was not employed for those three months so was footloose and fancy free during his work hours and could explore all over Washington DC and its suburbs – essentially anywhere the metro system or Shanks Pony could take me.  I saw a lot of the city that summer, worked out where had the best water fountains (DC, certainly back then, had atrocious drinking water so this was very useful knowledge), and visited almost all of the major tourist attractions.  One of these was National Zoo and I will state that back in 1995 I thought it was one of those zoos that needed to be closed down.  The enclosures were too small and there was inadequate stimulus for the captive animals.  I have an especially vivid memory of a condor being cramped in a cage so small I doubt it could fully extend its wings.  It was pretty depressing.  I went once and never returned.

My kids, however, were eager to visit the National Zoo and the fact that entry is free (yes, a zoo – usually one of the most expensive things a family can do – that was free!) persuaded us to give the National Zoo another visit 21 years on.  I am very pleased to report that the zoo we visited this summer was almost unrecognisable from the one I had visited in 1995.  The intervening two decades have evidently been spent on a great deal of remodelling and the zoo not only has a better flow and organisation to it but also has appropriate enclosures with stimulation for the animals.  I was, therefore, free to enjoy our day at the zoo as guilt-free as it is possible to be when staring at captive animals.

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The main driver for our visit to National Zoo was that my 10 year old is obsessed with pandas (and zebras but mainly pandas) and National Zoo presented an opportunity for him – for all of us actually – to see a real life panda for the first time.  We, therefore, set off first on the Asia Trail.  Our first encounter was with a Sloth Bear who was ambling about in his enclosure.  I loved his funny lips and his shaggy hair.  We also saw a brace of Fishing Cats, an endangered species.  Both were snoozing and in their languid slumber looked precisely like our pet cats at home.  One briefly lifted its head in feline contempt when a child (not one of mine) knocked on the glass and then it went straight back to sleep again.  The nearby otters were much more alert and were racing around their enclosure as a pack.  It seems likely they were awaiting feeding time as they were clearly trying to spot something and were being very vigilant.  We had a bird’s eye view of the elephant enclosure just as they were being released into their playground and then we arrived at the panda area.

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At first, the kids were a bit deflated.  I think they expected to turn a corner and just see the big pandas all sitting around posing for them and instead they were having to scan a massive enclosure filled with trees, rocks and foliage.  Mr Pict and I spotted one panda up a tree but the kids were having difficulty making it out.  Lips were pouting.  Then we went to view the interior enclosures and it was pandas galore.  Our boys were fizzing with excitement and the 10 year old was about ready to explode with glee.  One panda was curled up in a ball in a corner and the boys were already delighted.  Then we moved to an adjacent area where a panda was flopped over a rock in what looked like a pretty uncomfortable repose.  He would move from time to time in order to adjust his position and he even stuck out his tongue and drooled.  The kids were thrilled.  Then, in the next section, there was a panda playing with a football (or soccer ball if you insist).  Our 10 year old was ecstatic.  He even gained a better view of the panda who was up the tree.  I am not the biggest fan of pandas, truth be told, but even I thought it was pretty magical to finally see real live pandas for the first time in my life.

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Panda Mission accomplished we could wander around the zoo a bit more aimlessly and stop when we wanted to see something and wander past other things.  It was far, far, far too hot and humid to spend the entire day in the open air at the zoo so we knew we would not be able to spend time at every single enclosure or section.  Washington DC can be very muggy and swampy in summer and this was just such a day.  The zoo did have lots of water misters that we could switch on and get a refreshing spray of water to cool us down but the effects did not last nearly long enough on such a sweltering day.  The cheetah was pretty active and was slinking around his enclosure so we spent some time watching him but our next proper stop was the big ape house.

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We all love orangutans (they are the animal my Dad is obsessed with) but we only got a few glimpses of those as they all seemed to be sleeping except for one who was hiding under a bed sheet.  The gorillas, however, were a huge hit with the kids.  One large male was leaning against the glass eating so the kids could really gain a sense of his muscle and bulk and then the same gorilla ran past them right beside the glass and they gained an even stronger sense of his scale and power.  We also erupted into laughter when the large silverback gorilla peed and pooped and then sat back looking smug and arms folded as if to say, “And that’s why I’m the boss”.

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The small mammal building was another big hit with all of us.  We saw porcupines and armadillos which made me squeal with delight, especially when I spotted that the tree porcupines had had a baby who, not yet having hard spikes, looked like an adorable fuzzy tumbleweed.  I have shared before that my 9 year old is hugely obsessed with Naked Mole Rats so we spent some time observing these peculiar wee dudes in their translucent tunnels.  There was actually a squirmy traffic pile up in one tunnel and in another there was a naked mole rat with an itch he just could not scratch as he was wriggling and fidgeting and scratching away, contorting his wrinkly body into peculiar positions.  The kids thought he was awesome.  There was also a sloth (my sisters’ favourites), golden lion tamarins, lemurs with googly eyes, various monkeys, mongoose (mongeese?), and degus all huddled together in a pile on one log.  We also saw a couple of animals I had never seen before, tree anteater things called tamanduas and a tiny little hedgehog thing from Madagascar called a tenrec.

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The reptile house of any zoo is always worth a gander.  Reptiles and amphibians are so varied and interesting.  This reptile house did not disappoint.  We saw several species of snakes, including a massive anaconda.  There were also alligators and crocodiles galore, including a Cuban alligator and a garagal. There were tortoises and poisonous frogs but the kids were most entertained by the turtles.  There was a massive surly looking alligator snapping turtle lurking in a murky tank, a whole tank filled with long-necked turtles who were swimming around with their oddly bendy necks, and a large turtle with shotgun nostrils.

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Our final proper stop was in the Amazon section, showcasing creatures from that region of South America.  There were pink birds that I think were roseate spoonbills wandering around inside and the kids thought it was cool to be so close to these exotic bright birds.  We also saw a tank full of rays and another full of massive fish, including the biggest catfish I have ever seen.  Other tanks contained tree frogs and dart frogs and a tarantula that made my oldest son, an arachnophobe, rather nervous even though it was behind glass and not remotely interested in him.

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I am glad I returned to National Zoo and gave it another try.  The improvements have turned it into a lovely zoo and the inclusion of pandas is clearly a big draw.  Despite the oppressive heat, we spent a really great few hours there and saw plenty of active animals that delighted the kids.

Celebrate Every Day

The week 3 art journal prompt for Colour Me Positive was about living life to the fullest and the quotation to accompany that was “Make today so awesome that yesterday gets jealous”.  Although I am a natural pessimist and prone to cynicism, that also means I am very well aware of how short life can be.  I do, therefore, very much believe in living each day purposefully, making each day matter.  It doesn’t have to be about living life to the full each day, of course.  That would be impractical and near impossible to sustain.  To me, it is more about seeing the significance of small decisions that make bigger differences overall: choosing to do something with my kids instead of doing housework; making time for my art instead of dusting more than once a week.  See a pattern here?  I keep my house clean and tidy but keeping it neat as a shiny new pin would come at too great an expense for me.  I doubt anyone ever has, as they gasp their last breath, ever wished they had spent more time dusting.  Small choices add up to a more fulfilled life.

Anyway, just to contradict myself, I have been struggling for spare time for art this week so I decided to challenge myself to create a journal page in fifteen minutes from beginning to end.  That way I could multi-task while having a cup of tea and overseeing cookies I had baking in the oven.  Limiting myself in such a way also helps me to just be playful and relaxed while working in my art journal instead of seeing it as a task or something I have to accomplish.  It is a short burst of creative fun that way.

After all that preamble, the page is self-explanatory, a simple ink and wash drawing, featuring some of my favourite animals to draw – a rabbit and a pig – and the newest member of the Pict family, our three-legged cat.

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Philadelphia Zoo Revisited

As Summer heat simmers down to milder Autumn days, we figured the time was perfect for a return visit to Philadelphia Zoo.  It was almost exactly a year since our previous visit so perhaps it will become a seasonal tradition.  As before, we were able to use our membership to Elmwood Park Zoo to get into Philly Zoo half price which meant the price came in at under $10 per person.  Given that zoos are among the most expensive outings a family can undertake, I thought that was a pretty good deal.  I do so like thriftiness.

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We knew from experience that we would not be able to cover the entire zoo in one day trip unless we really slogged around, which is no fun for anyone, so we decided to take a different route from the one we had taken a year ago and to ensure we visited animals we had missed previously.  I won’t go into too much detail in this post given that I wrote at length about our previous trip but what was great this time was that the cooler temperatures meant the bigger critters were all much more active than we had seen them before.  There was very little in the way of lounging around and being lazy among the larger mammals.

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Highlights of this visit were many and varied.  Although I still didn’t get to see either of the polar bears swimming, one of the bears was having a stroll around his enclosure and was very close to the glass which meant we could appreciate its great size and its long muscular neck.  I have never seen a polar bear so close so that was very cool.  The other bears were also up and snuffling about.  My kids were quite taken with the fluffy Andean bear.  My 12 year old loved spending time with the penguins, of course.  We got to see them running, which was reliably hysterical, and we saw them scooting down their chute.  The big apes were also very active, the gorillas in particular.  An adult male was in a very playful male and was pounding around his enclosure, interior and exterior, and gave us a great show of his strength – and then he sat himself in a tiny pail which somewhat undermined his performance.  We saw some fantastically exotic birds with wonderful plumage. My 9 year old ate a huge pretzel that he dubbed Pretzilla which was an edible highlight.  My 8 year old loved the reptiles so he and I spent quite some time among the reptiles and amphibians, especially the crocodiles, alligators and snakes.  My 6 year old loved seeing a sloth dangling from the ceiling of its enclosure in the endangered species area.  Seeing aardvarks was a first for all six of us so that was another big highlight.  As nocturnal beasties, they were in a very dark enclosure and were tucked up, side by side, as if spooning as they slumbered.  Our 9 year old declared that they looked like his father and I when we are asleep.  I don’t know if that is cheek or a compliment!  Given the Pict family’s slight obsession with Naked Mole Rats, we again spent quite some time with our noses pressed up against the windows into their tunnels.  Their wrinkly pink bodies and their Nosferatu teeth cannot help but entertain and they were wriggling all over the place for this visit, including scuttling along tunnels.  I can also report that Naked Mole Rats might look like genitals but their genitals do not look like Naked Mole Rats.

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As zoos go, Philadelphia’s is very good and has clearly moved with the times to keep its enclosures and its practice updated.  Despite being America’s first zoo, it manages to look thoroughly modern and, unlike with some zoos, I can believe it is doing its bit for conservation and education.  One of the features that is new since we visited a year ago is a collection of sculptures throughout the zoo that depict animals and are constructed from recycled materials, therefore making a point about environmental responsibility and ecology of ecosystems and animal habitats.  They are also very brightly coloured and cheerful.  We had a very enjoyable day there again and so I am certain that we will return – probably next September since we appear to be creatures of habit.

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History of Art #24 – Picasso

It was a lot of fun to teach the boys about Picasso as part of our History of Art project.  It is possible to be really playful with Picasso plus not having any worries about even attempting verisimilitude meant the kids were much less inhibited.  Guernica is my favourite Picasso painting so we spent some time looking at the details of that painting, the impact of the tangle of figures and the way they conveyed messages about the chaos of conflict, the emotions of anguish and suffering.  We then looked at some portraits and the composition of the features so that they appear familiar and yet awry simultaneously.  That then became the inspiration for our creative responses to the lesson.

I demonstrated with some quick sketches.  I asked the kids to suggest some animals and then I produced rapid drawings with wonky features.

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My 9 year old produced a drawing of a man. The eyeball in the middle of the bearded chin is effectively disconcerting.

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My 8 year old drew Robin.  I think it’s brilliant.

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My 12 year old predictably opted to draw a penguin and his penguin is flanked by a peculiar looking seal and a narwhal.

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My 6 year old took a completely different approach and drew a diagram of choosing the different components to make up a human figure.  I love his imagination.

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I painted a self-portrait as my response to the Picasso lesson and had a lot of fun doing so.  It is definitely quite freeing to not be concerned about the accuracy of proportions and shapes.

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You can see my Picasso Bunny by hopping over to my art blog.

An Easter of Eggs and Eagles

This coming week our seven year old will turn eight.  As such he was allowed to pick the day trip destination yesterday, Easter Sunday, and he chose to go to Elmwood Park Zoo, an animal park not far from home for which we have an annual pass.

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It was a bright, sunny and warm day so most of the animals were out in their enclosures and most of those were active.  The boys enjoyed seeing the eagles.  It is always a surprise when close up to see how bulky these birds are, majestic and powerful.  We also saw the bighorn sheep and elk wandering around, saw the wolves lazing in the sun just like regular dogs and saw the massive bison clustered together in the same area of their enclosure that they always seem to hang out in.  We also went to the barn where the boys saw and heard a barred owl hooting and fed the sheep and goats, something they always enjoy.  We also finally saw the cougar sitting up.  It was still scooched up in a corner of its enclosure as per always but for once we could see more than just its butt.

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The kids always like the room that contains snakes, turtles and frogs and partly that is because it contains a darkened enclosure containing bats.  They are fascinated by the bats and love seeing them swoop around and clamber hand over hand along ropes.  There were also monkeys, including two who were holding hands, iguanas and sweet-faced little golden lion tamarins.  My personal favourite creature in that area of the zoo park, however, was the South America tree porcupine.  I love its peculiar face and its prehensile tail.  Later on in our visit we also saw some North American porcupines.  If anything, they were even more adorable.  I asked my 9 year old if he thought we could pinch one and sneak it home in his hoodie.  Just when I thought they could not get any more cute, the two porcupine nuzzled together as if kissing.  Too sweet.

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The boys were sad to discover that Princess the black jaguar was no longer in her enclosure.  We knew she had cancer so I can only assume that Princess had finally succumbed to her illness.  In her place, there were two jaguars of the patterned variety.  One was sleeping but another was padding around as if looking for something.  I guess perhaps dinner time was soon.  Near them, there were two capybara who apparently wanted to cool off.  I had never seen capybara swimming before so that was very cool to see.  They were quite entertaining to watch as one clearly wanted a bit of peace and quiet but the other kept swimming after it, butting against it, splashing and thrashing in the water right next to it.  Eventually they hauled themselves out of the pool and sat with their backs to each other as if in a huff.

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There was also time for playing in various play areas and an ice cream break and also a turn on a little caterpillar train.  We assumed that the latter would be considered far too lame for kids who had so recently been to the Florida theme parks but they wanted to have a go so they merrily did a few circuits.

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After dinner at Chilli’s – a treat for the soon-t0-be birthday boy – we went home to roll the eggs the boys had decorated earlier in the week.  The kids decided just to use the slope in our back garden but apparently it was not steep enough so they had to throw, chuck and lob their eggs more than roll them.  They even made them tumble down the concrete steps in order to pulverise their eggs.  Something about smashing things to smithereens really appeals to little boys so they had an utter blast.

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Mixed-Up Menagerie – Arting with Kids

I love to draw and my kids love to draw.  Sometimes we draw at the same time and together as a whole group.  This weekend, we couldn’t decide what we could all work on together so we decided to set ourselves a little challenge.  Think ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’ meets ‘Dr Dolittle’.

We wrote the names of scores of animals – representatives from every species – onto little slips of paper, folded these bits of paper up and popped them in a bowl.  Then each of us would select at least two slips of paper and draw the resulting hybrid animal.  We could only return a slip if the animals chosen at random were too similar.  The idea then was to draw something amusing, something that gave us all a bit of a chuckle, rather than to produce a drawing that even approached realism.

We had an absolute hoot drawing our crazy animals.  The kids drew theirs in pencil.  I also drew in pencil but then went over my lines with pitt pen and gave each drawing a quick watercolour wash to add colour.  Once each combination critter was drawn, we shared our drawings.  Much chuckling ensued.  Naming our animals through use of portmanteau resulted in yet more mirth.

Here are a selection of our hybrid beasties.

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So if you want a simple, quick, easy art project to do with kids – or just for fun yourself – then I highly recommend doing this.  I know we will do this again and again.

Philadelphia Zoo

Technically we are already in Autumn but we decided to have a “last days of summer” outing this weekend, to bask in the blazing sunshine and have some family fun.  Our family membership to Elmwood Park Zoo (which we had scored half price) got us half price entry into Philadelphia Zoo so that was our chosen destination.  Even if we had never used our membership to visit Elmwood Park Zoo, we would still have saved $30 on our entry to the Philly Zoo so – dear thrifty readers – it may be worth checking out affiliated organisations for reciprocal arrangements when deciding which memberships to purchase.  But I digress…

Philadelphia Zoo was actually the first zoo in America, dating as it does from the Reconstruction era.  Vintage zoos in Europe tend to be pretty bleak and depressing places so the Philly Zoo surprised me with being so contemporary.  There were barely any traces of it being historic at all.  I was pretty impressed with the enclosures which helped assuage my guilt about visiting a zoo and there was also lots of information around the place about their conservation efforts and captive breeding programmes.

There was a rare and endangered species area that enabled us to see, for the first time, some animals we had never seen in real life before, from monkeys with soulful eyes to a slouching sloth.  My 7 year old is obsessed with naked mole rats.  He has a cuddly one called Superdude and he bought another at the zoo, this one dubbed Superbud.  He was, therefore, ecstatic to see a whole pile of naked mole rats inside their tunnel enclosure.  Honestly, if we had gone all that way, paid the ticket price and only seen the naked mole rats, that boy would have been over the moon.  A lot of people think naked mole rats are ugly, little shrivelled phalluses with buck teeth, but I have to lump them in the “so ugly they’re cute” category.  All piled together, they were pretty adorable.  What I coveted, however, were the giant elephant shrews.  With their almost prehensile proboscises and their large dark eyes, they looked like cartoon characters.  If it was possible to have them as pets, I would be sorely tempted.

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Another highlight was the reptile and amphibian house.  The boys absolutely loved seeing all of the different types of snakes, discussing which ones were venomous and which ones were constrictors, which ones were exotic and which were locals.  They were thrilled – as in both excited and slightly scared – to see how many properly venomous snakes can be found in Pennsylvania.  There were also tiny, colourful, poisonous frogs, patterned frogs and a humungous bullfrog.  There were adult alligators and Nile crocodiles and a tank filled with baby alligators that had my kids clucking over them.  There were massive pythons and two huge anacondas.  My 5 year old loved the alligator snapping turtle, who was looking feisty and asserive in his tank, and my 11 year old was fascinated watching the pig nosed turtle glide back and forth in the water as if he was going for Olympic gold.  We were all hugely impressed by the king cobra who stretched up to an amazing height in order to try and intimidate us from behind the glass – thankfully behind the glass because I don’t think that snake was an altogether happy chappy.  I had no idea they could stretch up as tall as that.

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Around the zoo, there are overhead walkways, like enclosed gantries, that permit various creatures to go for a stroll.  We unfortunately did not see any of the big cats meandering around above our heads – though a keeper assured me that the leopards were in there – but we did see quite a few monkeys wandering around in them.  Strangely enough, therefore, the children’s play area was very reminiscent of these walkways.  My boys had a brief play there between animal encounters and it was all about scaling ropes, walking through tunnels and sliding down enclosed chutes.  The Naked Ape indeed.  Abutting the play area was our next stop: sheep and goats.  We were invited to walk among them and my youngest two boys immediately picked up brushes and started grooming them.  The goats were very docile and tolerant and there were these beautiful little grey sheep with silken, curled fleeces.

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My 11 year old has an obsession with penguins so we headed off to see the penguins next.  He was not disappointed as there were penguins standing around, penguins gliding and flopping into the water, a batch of swimming penguins and even one rotating in a circle as it floated on its back trying to clean its foot.  Just as the 7 year old had been with the naked mole rats, so our oldest was with the penguins.

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A hop, skip and a jump from the penguins brought us to an enclosure containing a rhino and a brace of zebras.  My 7 year old declared, “I know why they put the rhino in with the zebras – they want them to mate and make a unicorn.”  Oh.  Dear.  Still, you’ve got to hand it to the child for trying to will unicorns into existence somehow, even if he is being a bit “Island of Dr Moreau” about it.  Oddly, a few steps further on brought us to the bears, not all of whom were putting in an appearance.  We did get to see the Asian brown bear up close and were impressed by the enormous scale of his head.  Definitely not a teddy bear.  Alas, the polar bear was sunbathing rather than swimming in its pool.  Polar bears are tragically emblematic of the downside or underbelly of zoos.  All those poor demented polar bears pacing back and forth.  This one thankfully looked more content than any other polar bear I have seen but he or she was still on its own and in an enclosure that did not resemble its natural habitat.

At the Big Cat area, the Amur tigers were most impressive.  Big cats are usually found lolling around doing very little in zoos, definitely resembling giant moggies rather than apex predators, but the tigers were hugely active.  They were wandering around, coming right up to the glass, and at one point one of them lowered him or herself into the pool to cool down.  We were all delighted and stood enchanted watching them for ages.  We also saw a cougar on the move which is definitely the first time I have ever seen one in motion.

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The others were flagging at that point and needed a rest so my 7 year old and I decided to have one last creature encounter and headed off to the primate reserve.  We were glad we did so.  We saw an impressive looking male gorilla playing with toys and were delighted by a mother and child pair of orangutans who played beautifully with each other while the male rolled around on the floor munching fruit.  We also went into a pitch black area where we were able to view Aye-Ayes, a type of nocturnal lemur with long, skeletal fingers.  I had not anticipated them being as large as they were.  It was pretty magical to see such a creature for the first time.

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Children’s feet were tiring and they were beginning to flake in the heat of the sun so we decided to call it a day and head home after that.  We still had lots more to see so we will definitely need to return some time.  If you happen to travel to the Philly area and are looking for something that engages a range of ages then I would definitely recommend this zoo.

Elmwood Park Zoo

We have a season ticket for Elmwood Park Zoo so we decided to take a trip there today with the grandparents in tow.  Temperatures got up to 90 degrees today so a lot of the animals were just flaked out: all we saw of the cougar and wolves were their rumps as they lay prone in the shade.  There were also masses of day camp kids for us to wade through but thankfully the park seemed to absorb all the hordes of people not too badly.

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Since they have all been to that animal park before, the kids enjoyed revisiting favourite animals.  They were pleased to see that Penny the alligator was outside for a change, sunbathing, as were the porcupines.  There were also some new features to the zoo for this trip, I presume because it is now peak season.  The boys liked the fact that there were misters switched on throughout the park.  They loved standing in the water droplets for eons and getting utterly drenched while the droplets created ankle-height rainbows.  They had also introduced a bat cave.  Back in Britain, the boys had loved – at both Chester Zoo and Fife Animal Park – walking among a room full of bats.  Here, however, the bats were segregated from the human visitors by a large glass window.  It was still cool to watch them dangling upside down and crawling hand over hand along branches.

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A less welcome new feature was the fact that to even access the giraffe viewing platform we were required to be feeding the giraffes and the feed came with a per person cost.   I appreciate that animals are expensive to care for and overheads are high but it seemed a bit cheeky to be charging to even view the giraffes.  I was, for instance, charged the fee to ascend to the viewing platform even though I was simply accompanying my children rather than feeding the giraffe.  The boys really wanted to feed the giraffes so, just this once, I sucked up the extra cost and they were handed a bunch of lettuce.  The kids absolutely loved the experience of feeding the giraffe and feeling his blue tongue lapping against their hands.

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The boys had never been in the aviary before as the timings had never worked out but this time we managed to enter and three of them decided to feed them.  This time I did not mind paying the extra fee since it was per stick of feed rather than per person entering the aviary.  The boys who did the feeding absolutely loved having the birds fly onto their hands and being able to see, close up, their beaks nibbling away at the fruit.  They all loved their sweet little faces and brightly coloured plumage.

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After an ice cream break and a run around the large playground, it was time to head home – and pack for our vacation.