Capybaras in Cape May

My 14 year old has been obsessed with capybaras for almost a year now. I don’t know the origin of the obsession but he is passionate about capybaras. He has even researched keeping them as pets even though he has been told that is absolutely not happening.

Since we were blessed with good weather and warm temperatures this President’s Day, we decided to take a daytrip to Cape May. This was because the zoo there has capybaras. I have not seen our 14 year old this enthusiastic about a day trip in years. I am pleased to report, therefore, that the capybaras were up and about and doing lots of adorable things. There appeared to be a mother and two juveniles. I was amused by how much the siblings behaved in ways entirely like our cats. They were very playful and endearing. As you can imagine, we were at the capybara enclosure for a long time.

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We did visit other animals in the zoo and we all made sure we saw the areas that contained favourite beasties. My 16 year old wanted to see the primates – I think primarily because he loves the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy – and my 12 year old is cat-obsessed so we saw the various big cats. He especially loved seeing the Amur Leopard and Snow Leopard. The latter made me chuckle because one of them was lying on its back, sunning its belly, just like our three-legged cat at home. For my part, I always like the reptile and amphibian house because I like the weird looking critters.

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It was a lovely day out, just the right length of time away from home to transition out of our Winter hermit ways and something that engaged everyone. I think we definitely fed the capybara obsession, however: on the drive home he was banging on about the best way to give his pet capybaras access to a bathing pool at home and figured some steps up to our bathtub would be the best bet.

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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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Long Beach Island, New Jersey

Every Summer there is seemingly a mass migration of the greater Philadelphia population towards the coast of New Jersey.  Most people I asked about their summer vacation plans were headed to The Shore.  As has been documented on this blog a few times before, I am not a fan of beaches because I loathe sand.  A beach based vacation, therefore, is not my idea of rest and relaxation.  However, because the rest of the Picts do enjoy the sand and surf, we do head to the beach on occasion.  We all agree, however, that we do not like crowded beaches and that rules out most of the Jersey Shore at this time of year.  Last Friday, however, we decided to experiment with a trip to Long Beach Island – or LBI as it is known.

The advantage of Long Beach Island is that, being devoid of a boardwalk, it is less touristy than many of its neighbouring beaches and is, therefore, a bit more subdued.  It was even quieter on Friday, however, because there was a damp chill in the air and a murky sea mist that never properly lifted.  As Brits brought up cowering on cold and grey beaches, however, we were unperturbed since the air temperature was perfectly pleasant for us.

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Mr Pict and the Pictlings spent a good few hours frolicking in the sea and playing on the sand.  The boys took turns burying each other, the youngest set himself a challenge of seeing how many clam shells he could find in the sea, and the middle two decided to turn seaweed into wigs.

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LBI is 18 miles long and very narrow so it is a very easy spot to explore.  After a delicious lunch at a diner and an ice cream break at Ben and Jerry’s, we went to the southern most end of the island for a snoop.  A whole fleet of heavy plant vehicles were labouring away on the wet sand to dredge and restore the sand dunes so that was interesting to watch.  The highlight of the trip, however, as far as the kids were concerned was finding the rotting carcass of a small shark.  They were even excited by the maggots wriggling beneath it.  It reeked.

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In our exploration of the island, the boys had spotted a very small amusement park type place called Fantasy Island which was opening at 4pm so we parents were persuaded to take them back there for one ride each.  There were not many rides to select from but that worked for us since we were limiting the kids.  Three of the boys elected to go on the ferris wheel accompanied by Mr Pict while the 13 year old decided to spectate with me and pocket what would have been spent on his ride.  Sensible child.

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Sketching at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

It is actually rather surprising that I have lived in the Philly suburbs for two years and yet Sunday was my first ever trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  We have, of course, past it many times.  It is a hard to miss the main building, imposing in its elevated position and in its architectural stylings as some sort of Greek temple.  The first Sunday of every month (and Wednesdays after 5pm) are “pay what you like” entry meaning we gave a donation rather than paying the usual ticket price.  That made it much more affordable for us to visit and not feel we had to see absolutely every item on display.  It was the perfect time for us to take the boys along to an art gallery – and the PMA is one of the biggest in America – since we are close to concluding our History of Art project.  It was interesting to see how much learning about art history and theory they had absorbed (way more than I had anticipated) and to see which of the artists we had studied they were eager to see the works of.

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Most of our family trips to museums and art galleries have always involved sketching.  It keeps the boys engaged, keeps them occupied while Mr Pict and I read information about the exhibits, and gets the kids to observe details they might otherwise overlook.  I had intended on taking along our art journals for sketching in but I knew large bags had to be checked at the museum and I didn’t fancy carrying five books around so I had a brainwave and grabbed a large stack of index cards instead.  They turned out to be perfect!  We could hold them in our hands easily while we drew even if we were standing in a crowded room.  The idea was to just draw whatever caught our interest, entire compositions or details, attempts to copy a work of art or just use it as the basis of something else.  My 10 year old, for instance, did a lot of Batman homages and my 12 year old zombified drawings.

I don’t know if it was just that the docents were made antsy by increased visitors (if there even were swollen numbers because of the name your entry fee day) but I have never been made to feel more unwelcome in a museum in my life – and I have been to a vast number of museums in my time.  My kids were well behaved but I was made to feel as if I had to keep them shackled to my side or else risk being chastised by someone in a uniform.  In a wide open room with hardly anyone in it, my kids were sitting on the floor to do some sketching.  Nobody had any difficulty moving around them.  They were not remotely in anyone’s way.  Nevertheless, we were told they had to get up off the floor because they were endangering other visitors.  Later Mr Pict was told off for pointing in the direction of a painting even though his arm would have to have grown at least a foot for his finger to have even come near the painting.  Our little one can be a bit of a hand full so we had eyes on him at all times and kept him in grabbing reach.  Regardless, his butt only just had to touch a bit of the balcony  – because he took a step backwards – and he was told off for doing something dangerous.  It was exasperating.  I also don’t think it is the ethos or atmosphere museums should be striving for.  Exclusivity means encouraging engagement with all types of people including children.  That, however, was the only bum note in our trip and I would say that two of the docents were very good.  One was actively engaging people in conversation about art rather than just staring at visitors and one was very interested in the drawings the boys were doing and gave a hearty chortle when she saw that my 8 year old had turned his drawing of Renoir’s Washerwoman sculpture into Batman.

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We knew we could not possibly cover the whole of the main building’s galleries in one visit  – at least not without rushing and getting many grumbles from the kids – so we decided to focus on American art and the 19th Century European galleries as that would cover the majority of the artists who we had studied as part of our art history project.  The PMA has an impressive collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works of art.  The boys settled down to draw their first sketches in a room lined with Renoirs, Monets, Manets and one of Degas’ Little Dancer sculptures.  My 6 year old was especially taken with all of the Renoir nudes and used a lot of index cards drawing voluptuous women inspired by Bathers and some other pieces.  We also spent a lot of time in a room containing a Munch mermaid frieze and paintings by Klimt, Schiele and Friedrich.  It was fascinating seeing the Klimt piece – Klimt being one of my favourites – as it was unfinished and I was able to see his approach to painting the different elements of the portrait, making the background and figure cohere.

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It was pleasing to see the boys recognising the work of artists before reading the labels.  I have been unsure of how much of the learning from our History of Art project has been sinking in but it seems like they have been absorbing far more information than they were letting on.  Cezanne’s Bathers was one of the paintings we had studied so it was cool for them to see its huge scale.  They were excited to spot on of Monet’s water lily paintings and to see one of Van Gogh’s Sunflower paintings and they were chattering knowledgeably about Van Gogh’s use of thick paint.  They were also able to identify a Modigliani from just a glimpse of it in a corridor.  My 10 year old was over the moon to spot a Lichtenstein, whose comic book style had really chimed with him, and they were also able to recognise works by Kandinsky, Mondrian and Klee.  My 8 year old absolutely loves the work of Chagall and Picasso so he was jumping up and down with joy when we first walked into the museum and saw Chagall’s massive Wheatfield on a Summer Afternoon.  He also loved seeing Chagall’s Half Past Three and visited the museum shop in order to buy a postcard of it for his bedroom.  We also spent a lot of time studying Picasso’s Three Musicians and sketching its figures and patterns and shapes, either trying direct copying or drawing inspired by the painting.

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We had a detour through the armoury section and the museum’s collection of rooms from various historic periods shifted wholesale from their original settings.  We also stopped to watch and listen to a group of musicians demonstrating traditional Dia de los Meurtos music.  Then it was time to move onto the American galleries.  The boys’ concentration was flagging at this juncture, however, so it was a speedier walk through with me just pointing out some of the highlights.  I was frustrated to only chance upon one Sargent portrait as he is another of my favourites and I had hoped to show the kids more.  We were able to see a few Winslow Homer pieces, including The Life Line which was one of the paintings we had looked at when studying Homer.  The Museum also holds an impressive collection of paintings by Thomas Eakins, a realist painter from Philadelphia.  He is an artist I am not very familiar with so I was glad of the opportunity to look at so many of his portraits, including two massive paintings of celebrated physicians teaching.

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Once outside, the boys could burn off some of their energy.  Although they have never seen the movie, my boys are aware of the iconic scene from ‘Rocky’ in which Rocky runs through the streets of Philly before triumphantly running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  They, therefore, decided to recreate the scene and ran down and then up the steps.  My 6 year old, by far the most physical of my kids, powered up and down the whole flight of stairs several times before we urged him to stop.  We then popped around the corner to take a photo of them with the bronze statue of Rocky at the bottom of the steps.  I find it quite amusing that of all the sculptures in Philly one of the most famous is of a fictional character.

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The trip to the Museum was a birthday treat for me.  I love art (you may have noticed) but have not visited a major art gallery since we emigrated to America so it was a real treat to go and visit such a huge collection.  I was unsure of the extent to which the kids would engage with the trip but, between sketching their way around and their ability to recognise the work of certain artists, they were on top behaviour with very little mumping and moaning until they flagged right at the end.  We will definitely return to see more of the museum some other time.  I will also remember to take index cards with me for future trips – we produced almost 100 drawings between us on this single visit.

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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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Sunday in the Park with Picts

On a normal, everyday basis, I am pretty used to living in America now.  There are times, however, when I almost pinch myself and think to myself how weird it is that I live here.  Sunday was just such a day.  The littlest Pict – as part of his birthday festivities – requested a trip to New York City.  So we did.  And that felt a bit weird and also pretty cool.

Young kids travel free on the New Jersey transit on weekends so – with three of our kids qualifying – we determined that we could make a trip to NYC an affordable day trip.  We crossed state lines by car and hopped on the train.  It was the first time my kids had ever been on a double-decker train, a concept which they thought was excitingly awesome.  We travelled there on the top tier and came back on the bottom one so that they could experience both decks.  They thought it was cool to be eye level with people’s feet when on the bottom deck.  In really no time at all we were at Penn Station and right in the midst of midtown Manhattan.

The train tickets were our expense for the day so we were all about free fun.  We strolled up through the smack-bang-wallop sights and sounds of Times Square and continued on a few blocks until we reached Central Park, the focus of our trip.  Yes indeed: we essentially travelled all of the way to New York in order to play in a park.  Also kind of weird and kind of cool.

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We were no sooner in Central Park – which was absolutely thronging with people out enjoying the Sunday sunshine – than my four kids all scarpered off to climb on rocks.  They scrambled up and down the rocks like a herd of little mountain goats.  I have acrophobia so watching their antics gives me the heebie-jeebies but I don’t want to turn my kids into little quaking jellies like me so I try to let them just get on with it.  Of course, all four of my kids have broken teeth through face planting before so perhaps my hands-off policy is not the best.

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Our 9 year old has the most powerful imagination of the bunch and he is also the most persuasive so he engineered a game they could all play on the rocks.  The game was very complex, too complex for me to comprehend, but it definitely involved battling mountain orcs.  Occasionally I would spot another child or two wander towards my kids, observing them, perhaps tempted to join the fray, but my kids are kind of a pack and completely wrapped up in their game there was not a chance anyone else was going to get absorbed into their play.  That’s the thing about a gang of four brothers who are also best buddies: they have each other so they can tend towards exclusivity.  So they ran around on the rocks for a couple of hours, being orcs, killing orcs, and ever so often Mr Pict and I would herd them a few yards further into the park so that we could make some sort of progress.  They would then career around and caper on some other rocks for a good while.

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Eventually they decided they were up for a stroll.  They were quite taken with the pond near the Hallett Nature Sanctuary so we idled there for a while before doubling back towards the Dairy so we could gulp cold water from the drinking fountain there and refill our water bottles.  The boys then decided they wanted to see some statues so we wandered along Literary Walk where we saw Shakespeare, Walter Scott and Robert Burns.  We the continued along the Mall to Bethesda Terrace because I wanted to see the Bethesda Fountain actually operating.  I had seen it on my trip to New York a couple of months ago but that was in very different weather conditions.  The bronze angel dates from the early 1870s and symbolises purity, hence the lily in her hand.  Below her feet are four cherubs who apparently represent purity, health, temperance and peace.

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We then cut across to the east and wended our way past the model boat pond, which was full of model yachts competing with a few ducks, and then to the Alice in Wonderland Statue.  I had had a notion to take the boys on a highlights tour of Central Park statues but they had spent so long enjoying simply running around on the rocks and across the grass that my plan was abandoned as soon as it was hatched.  They did, however, want to see the Alice statue.  It was, as always, covered in children.  I managed to get an almost child-free photo of it last time I was in Central Park but there was no chance of that this time.  The photographer in me might find that a little dismaying but the parent in me is much stronger and enjoyed seeing all of the kids – not just my own – enjoying the sculpture and becoming part of the Mad Hatter’s tea party.  Half a century of kids clambering all over the statue has given it a glowing patina.  My kids particularly enjoyed exploring beneath the mushrooms, finding all the smaller sculpted details of bugs and beasties, and also enjoying the shade it provided.

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We then popped out onto 5th Avenue with its many museums behind us and its miles of very expensive shops in front of us.  We had not even reached the southside of Central Park before the kids started to flag so they had an ice cream to fortify themselves for the many more steps to come.  We did, however, decide to add another free item to our day’s itinerary not least because it offered us some shade and air conditioning, and that was a trip into FAO Schwarz.

FAO Schwarz is the oldest toy store in America, having been founded in 1862, but sadly it is going to be closing its doors this summer.  I was eager to get the kids into this iconic shop before it ceased to be in that location and perhaps even ceased to be permanently.  The store front – part of the General Motors Building – is actually quite unassuming but is Tardis-like once inside.  I was instantly wowed by the chill blast of the air conditioning but my children were wowed, their eyes like saucers and their jaws agape, by a massive display of cuddly toys.  It was like a zoological park of plush animals.  Some of these were massive and carried massive price tags to match.  Our 8 year old was smitten with unicorns and pegasuses the size of Shetland ponies but a lifetime of pocket money was not going to get him one.  Knowing there was no way we were going to cover the whole store, the boys were asked to determine which areas and displays they wanted to see.  Inevitably, therefore, the sections we visited were for superhero action figures, Minions, video games and Lego.  The kids had a great time looking at all the toys, mentally creating lists for Santa.

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Then it was time to leave the soothing cool of the toy store and go back out onto the busy, baking streets.  Somehow the walk back to Penn Station felt so much longer and further than the walk to Central Park had been that morning.  The train was surprisingly busy for a Sunday, alarmingly so since we had to walk the length of several carriages to find one that had space.  The kids’ feet and legs were pegging out at the mere thought of there being standing room only all the way back to our destination station.  Thankfully, at the penultimate carriage, we found some spaces on the bottom deck.  We sank into the chairs, exhausted, sticky from humidity and park dust, but very glad that our very first day trip to New York City had been a grand success and one I think we shall repeat.

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.