Because my children have dragged our family through practically every other traditional zoo in the Northern Hemisphere, and because we needed one last financially irresponsible escapade before school started this year, we decided to make a trip to the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose, Texas.
Unlike a traditional zoo where the wildlife is safely secured within enclosures and only pose a danger to your nostrils, Fossil Rim is a drive-through animal experience. It’s what would happen if a traditional zoo was managed by a really unreliable babysitter. The animals seem to be left to their own devices as they freely play in the street barefoot and are encouraged to take food from strangers. (I think I even saw some of them swimming less than thirty minutes after they’d eaten!)
After checking in and purchasing our tickets, which included a large paper bag containing grain pellets that I’ll be finding in my floorboard for the next decade, we began our drive into the wilds of Central Texas. At first we were a little disappointed that we were only seeing a bunch of freeloading squirrels (are there any other kind?) and some apathetic antelope-thingies that looked like they were watching the Golf Channel after eating a large Mexican dinner.
Speaking of large Mexican dinners, my comfort level on this excursion had been significantly compromised by our lunch at a Fort Worth location of Uncle Julio’s Mexican Restaurant, my own culinary utopia. With the combination of my salsa IV drip, a fajita dinner, my daughters’ table scraps, and the famous Uncle Julio’s chocolate piñata (a milk-chocolate shell full of strawberries, churros, chocolate-filled empanadas, and other treats certain to ruin my chances of competing on American Ninja Warrior), I had ingested my yearly allotment of calories in one sitting and was trying to avoid slipping into a Tex-Mex coma.
As we continued driving down deserted rocky trails and through empty fields of tall grasses, all I could think about, besides the trip being a total bust, was the likelihood that, with my windows down, I might be set upon by an especially acrobatic tick. Just as I was about to apologize to my family for insisting that this would be a lot more fun than Six Flags, all three of my daughters released one of their signature ear-shattering squeals of delight as a couple of overly-frisky ostriches advanced toward the car. In an extremely un-Big Bird-like fashion, these hooligan fowl invited themselves into our personal space and systematically probed our appendages for food pellets until we all felt thoroughly violated. (I’m fairly certain that they left some DNA on my interior.)
Just after the ostrich assault, we reached the halfway point in the course where the park designers had strategically placed the gift shop. Positioned to lull tourists into a euphoric state of careless spending, the gift shop stands atop a high bluff that overlooks the lush valley of the wildlife park below. As I stood gazing at the beautifully rugged landscape, a cordial Australian sales associate assisted my daughters in selecting the largest and most expensive plush animals possible–because we still have room for a few more inside our home if we cram really hard and give up breathing.
The second half of our self-driven tour ended without incident, and we did encounter an aloof zebra, some distant rhinos and even a few lethargic cheetahs, but the real highlight of our trip took place at dusk when we embarked on the Discovery After Dark tour. This special event was led by a spritely young guide and two conservation education interns, all of whom were hired specifically to make me feel old.
As our designated intern drove us out into the park in an open-air bus, she made sure to expose us to a series of authentic African potholes, one of which caused a Latino gentleman standing beside me to balance himself by instinctively grabbing me around the waist–tango style. I must admit that even though I laughed it off as he apologized (I think) profusely in Spanish, I was a little disappointed that he didn’t have a rose in his teeth.
Once the jostling had given us all epic wedgies, we finally reached the feature we’d been waiting for (other than the air-conditioned drive back to the hotel)–the giraffe encounter! Several of these majestic animals immediately approached the bus and leaned in to take our grain pellets. To express their appreciation, they left our hands covered in thick loogie strands from their elongated black tongues. Although our intern assured us that giraffe saliva contains antibacterial properties, she failed to mention, as I learned later, that they are also fond of using their tongues to taste one another’s urine. (Thanks, Animal Planet!)
With our hair blowing in the cool evening breeze, carrying only a hint of exotic manure, I felt a strong sense of satisfaction that we had ended the summer with a great family experience. And with my wife’s birthday coming up, this trip gave me an idea for the perfect gift¬¬¬–tango lessons! (I wonder if the Latino guy is available.)