Hampton Roads is like a yard sale: it’s sprawling, disorganized and random, but if you look hard enough, you can usually find hidden treasures at a price that fits the college kid budget. Many Old Dominion University students are not originally from here, and many natives, like myself, have never fully explored Norfolk’s charms.
With that in mind, I’ve set out to explore this treasure trove, and my hope is that together, we can discover the best of what our city has to offer.
My wife has had two goals over the past few weeks; first, to get out of the house when the weather is nice, and second, to get a picture of our five-month-old son in his monkey outfit in front of some actual monkeys. With that intention, we set out for the Virginia Zoo, located in Norfolk.
It’s a little known- and little advertised- fact that Norfolk college students receive free admission to the Virginia Zoo with their student ID.
I made the mistake of sleeping in that Saturday, so it was nearly noon before we arrived. We were forced to sit in the turn lane on Granby Street for nearly half an hour before we even made it into the parking lot.
After fighting for a parking space, we were treated to a wondrously exciting thirty minute wait in the admissions line, with a spectacular up-close view of a metal elephant’s ass.
At the admissions window, the woman barely glanced at the proffered student IDs and we were waved inside. Thank you, minimum-wage-fueled indifference. We grabbed a map, and set out for the monkeys. Or so we thought.
My wife is utterly incapable of reading or following a map. Marrying a cute blonde seems like a good idea, but its times like this I wish I’d gone brunette. So we wound up in the nocturnal animal exhibit instead.
The dim, narrow corridor was packed to overflowing with small children, banging on the glass windows and screaming at the snakes, lizards, frogs and rodents to do something, anything, besides sleep.
The parents were all too eager to point out the obscure facts listed on the displays, but apparently none felt the urge to explain the meaning of the word “nocturnal” to their respective hellions.
We finally managed to escape, miraculously resisting the urge to turn small humans into road kill with our giant, military-issue stroller. Once we were back out into the sun, I took control of the map, and we set out, once again, to find the monkeys.
This time, we found them rather quickly. The little family of siamangs mirrored my own: a father, a mother, and a small child. As I watched the young monkey leap from rope to hammock to tire swing, I could only feel grateful that my own offspring is not yet so mobile.
We took the picture just in time; my son was starting to look like he was roasting in that monkey outfit. After quickly changing him into cooler clothes, we moved on to the other animals.
The tigers were sadly absent, either hiding or not present in their enclosure. The lions were lounging in the sun, not doing much of anything. This was the first time I’ve ever even seen them out and about.
To be quite honest, I’ve always found the large predators to be a little disappointing. I don’t want to see them lounging about like giant housecats in barred windowsills. I want to see them roar, stalk and pounce. I want nature, red in tooth and claw.
Most of the other animals were lounging about as well. The bears were napping in the shade, as were the gazelles. I did feel lucky that the tapirs weren’t being active once I saw the sign on their cage: “Warning, Urine Danger. Tapirs can spray 7-10 feet behind them.” Ew.
Unlike most of the other animals, the red pandas were hamming it up for the crowds. They strutted back and forth on the branches over the walkway to the delight of the crowds. They would stop just long enough to pose for pictures, peeking over the branches and looking thoroughly adorable.
We ate before we got to the zoo, which turned out to be a good plan. The lines, the food and the behavior of the patrons were all reminiscent of a middle school cafeteria. I felt lucky to avoid them.
What the place really needs, in my opinion, are a couple of strategically positioned beer carts. Sure, they’d be overpriced, but it would be worth it to quiet the voices telling me to throw someone else’s kindergartener into the lion enclosure. I really want to see them stalk and pounce.
All in all, it turned out to be a pretty good day, and free admittance makes it one worth repeating. My wife enjoyed herself, and my son took a good, long nap after all the time outdoors. He is too young to appreciate the experience; he found his own feet to be equally as interesting as any of the animals.
It’s a trip we’ll have to repeat in a couple of years, once he’s old enough to understand the meaning of the word “nocturnal.”
By David Thornton