Night Camp at the Phoenix Zoo
Sleeping with the animals
My son and I arrived 15 minutes late for our overnight stay at the Phoenix Zoo’s Night Camp, but timed our appearance perfectly for the concurrent delivery of a tall stack of Hungry Howie’s pizza. We had barely enough time to wash down a few slices with the fruit punch they provided, when Stacey, a wiry and freckled female counselor yelled, “Last call!” Even pre-teens know that this means drink up in bar parlance, so the last few pieces were grabbed from the remaining boxes, and we placed our cups, paper plates, and napkins in plastic lined garbage cans that buzzed with enough marauding sweat bees to start their own exhibit. Stacey was flanked by Joel, another twenty something counselor with a high ear piercing that was placed exactly where his mother might grab him if she heard he had become snarky with any of the campers.
After-hours access gives kids and their parents the opportunity to see animals pacing in cages during the only time the poor animals have to privately regard their situation. Usually, during the heat of the day when visitors are present, they are asleep in some darkly lit, shadowy corner, doing their best to avoid being seen. With several dozen twelve year olds and their bleary-eyed parents invading their space during the late evening and early morning, they are forced to be spectacles, like human prisoners watched by guards during their brief time in the exercise yard.
The two counselors herded our group of 35 and our sleeping bags and overnight gear into a small auditorium that had—get this—a huge display of leaf cutter ants along one wall, complete with what seemed like a few hundred feet of 1 ½” clear plastic tubing. It was full of thousands of live ants and the white fungus that they culture. It’s an incredible sight because, in nature, this fungus growing operation all happens in the recesses of an underground labyrinth, and without a display like this, we wouldn’t have a clue as to what those ants were really up to down there.
The keepers feed the ants green vegetation in an open 100 gallon aquarium, then liberally coat the insides of the glass with a hyper sticky gel call Tanglefoot, claiming that it keeps the ants inside. I’ve used this stuff before, and while it works well when it’s newly applied, it loses its effectiveness when it gets dusty or dirty, or when it works too well; that is, when the trapped insects become the perfect stepping stones for every crawling insect that follows. When I expressed my concern to Stacey, she assured me that the Tanglefoot is refreshed often.
“Including today?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “I don’t take care of them.”
This wasn’t the answer I was hoping for. As we carved out a patch of real estate on the concrete floor for our belongings, I had no doubt that a morning head count of those ants (if such a thing were possible) would reveal that a few dozen—maybe a hundred—found their way into the sea of sleeping bags and onto the occupants. I’ve seen Jurassic Park; it just had to happen.
The night is young
But the night was still young, and all the campers, including the adults, were excited. First, there was a brief demonstration and talk about scorpions—which glow blue-green under ultra violet light—then we began our first sojourn outside into the wilds of the zoo with a short walk to the coati enclosure. These raccoon relatives, also called coatimundis, are almost monkey-like in their climbing abilities. I’ve rarely seen them in the wild, so I was disappointed when the dog food that Stacey threw inside failed to tempt them out of the shadows. We visited a riparian habitat, a reconstructed eagle’s nest, and ended up at a close-up encounter with a mountain lion named Camille. She was wide awake and active, pacing slowly back and forth, never averting her glance from the well fed group on the other side of the bars that held her.
These big cats have retractable claws that they only use when necessary; they want to keep them nice and sharp for when they’re needed. Stacey told us about a woman who accidentally dropped her purse inside the barrier of the lion’s enclosure and was foolhardy enough to climb in to retrieve it. She wasn’t permanently injured or killed, but the lion firmly swatted her with a paw full of un-retracted claws before she made her escape. There was surely some blood involved, but when prodded about that detail—and whether the lady retrieved her purse—Stacey claimed not to know any of the gory or financial details.
Snacks and snakes
Next came the peccaries, also called javelinas. Nearly everyone who has come in contact with them at the “urban interface” with their wild habitat has a story to tell, and gardeners, in particular, hold a minor grudge against these animals. They can turn a new landscape or garden upside down—literally—in a single night, and they've left many a dog seriously, if not mortally, inured. They are crepuscular (active in mornings and evenings) and nocturnal animals, so as the light faded, I wasn’t surprised to see them out in the open, innocently feeding on whatever the keepers had chosen for their supper. When we came to a bridge that spanned the coyote habitat, Joel told us that some time ago, a wild coyote had gotten into the enclosure and fought with one of the captive coyotes, chewing off the captive coyote’s tail in the process. This was confirmed by a video camera that recorded the event, and in deference to the unfortunate plight of the now tail-less coyote, he was renamed Bob.
Back at the room that we shared with the ants, it was demonstration time. The counselors brought out boxes and cages containing all manner of insects, animals, and snakes. Walking sticks and a tarantula were passed around and allowed to walk on the kids hands, along with a spotted gecko. A tiny African hedgehog name Pabo was carefully removed from his box, and Joel explained that his dense quills were actually modified hairs.
At 9 pm, a snack of celery, chips, pretzels, and string cheese was handed out to everyone. Afterward, Joel brought out a 4 ½ foot gopher snake and asked me to help measure it. This proved to be more challenging that it sounds. The snake was particularly hyper at this hour and hard to control, but not as much as the Great Horned Owl named Annie that Stacey brought out on a short leather tether. It was clearly freaked out by the group and hung from her arm upside down, spinning and gyrating, frantically flapping its five feet wide wings. Stacey seemed as flustered as the owl, but after about thirty seconds, the owl managed to right itself and both the handler and the handled regained their collective composures. We learned that owls have twice as many vertebrae as in their necks as mammals, which is why they can rotate their heads 270 degrees. They pant to dissipate heat using a gular sack that pulsates in that unmistakable owl-like way in the center of their throat.
Flightless flamingos and flying foxes
Our last walk before bedtime was with a new counselor, DeLaura (apparently there was evening shift change), who took us to the Flamingo pen that had an electrified copper tube running along it to keep the predators out, a tube that they likely de-energized during the day but sternly warned us not to touch tonight. They keep the Flamingos on their side of the copper tube by breaking the wing bones of the birds to keep them from flying properly—and if some still found a way, that same copper tube also kept the crippled birds from the predators patiently waiting on the other side.
Large fruit-eating bats, also known as flying foxes, were housed in a caged aviary that had a bright light hung in one upper corner where the bats congregated. Bats have one way valves in their blood vessels that prevent blood from pooling in their heads as they hang upside down, probably much like the veins work in our bodies to keep blood from pooling in our legs.
Bedtime for Bonzos
Bedtime, in the midst of thirty twelve year olds, was not a part of the zoo experience that I was looking forward to. The smarter parents had chosen the Twilight Camp, which featured everything that we had just experienced, and, for no extra charge, allowed kids and chaperones to leave at 10 pm and sleep in their own beds. But this was Night Camp, and for another ten dollars, we got the concrete floor next to the ants. As a bonus, we were only one flimsy door away from the Albino Burmese Python and a dozen other snakes that were housed in an adjacent room. Earlier we were told that a 12 foot monitor lizard can easily eat and digest a 100 pound child—the zoo had one of those lizards, but he, or she, was housed in a separate building, leaving us with only the snakes and ants to dream about.
Boys and girls were separated by a divider that was pulled across the auditorium. The boys were actually quite funny with no shortage of obligatory fart noises (both real and fabricated) and lots of giggling fits. It was all so contagious and silly that I fought back my own laughter a dozen times. At one point, there was a brief period of quiet and the chaperones thought that most of the energy had been consumed. But it was broken when one of the boys decided to fake an orgasm, and the raucous cycle started all over again. It took an hour or more, but by 11:30, nearly all were asleep. I got up and tip-toed around the sleeping bags, then glared menacingly at any of the last holdouts who were still awake. By midnight, even I was snoring.
The first boys were up at 6 am, though the morning didn’t officially start until 6:30. The breakfast drink was coffee and sour milk (quickly replaced with fresh) for the adults and half frozen orange juice that the counselors had forgotten to remove from the freezer in time, for the kids. Food included fruit loops, sweet rolls, and those hideous miniature shrunken bagels that are all but inedible. Everyone received a Zoo Life bottle when we first came in, so we refilled those to carry water with us for the short slate of morning activities.
A green Iguana that was in a cage in the snake room was fed a shredded tossed salad—“chopped” in human speak. Its eyeballs darted back and forth rapidly in its sockets, but it’s body moved as slow and clumsily as a 1960s Disney animatronic crocodile. The high point of the morning was seeing the cheetah, clearly the most athletic looking of any of the African cats. It sat passively on its haunches like a dog waiting for a treat, then stiffened threateningly and let out a silent snarl when we got too close. The only thing separating us from him was a 12 foot wide moat, a distance that seemed barely half of what was probably his effective leaping distance.
By 9 am, the camp was over and we were invited to spend the rest of the day at the zoo if we liked. My son and I rented a human-powered Red Deuce Coup, and spent another hour pedaling around the entire outer loop, adroitly avoiding the increasing number of visitors who had opted to pay for the vastly inferior daytime experience.