Thursday, July 16, 2009

My Family Vacation Part III: Flying Death at the Henry Doorly Zoo

Author’s note: This is the third of a four-part story of my family’s summer vacation. By now the inside of the minivan smells funny.

Sundays as a kid were borderline fantastic.

The day started with a pile of fried pork and hash browns covered in gravy. That was followed by church, hamburgers, a Tarzan movie and “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.”

“Wild Kingdom” was the pinnacle of Sunday programming for a 10-year-old boy because, unlike the “Wonderful World of Disney,” there was a chance I’d get to see a 250-pound feline gut a wildebeest.

Zoologist Marlin Perkins hosted the program throughout the 1960s and ’70s and never got close to an animal unless it climbed into the front seat of his Jeep. But his co-host, Jim Fowler was nearly killed every episode. Jim’s job was to wrestle whatever beast nature threw at him: lions, anacondas, yaks, rancors, the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms – anything. But never a blonde. I always felt sorry for Jim.

I wasn’t thinking about Jim as my family and I walked toward the entrance of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo (home of the Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom Pavilion); I was thinking of Marlin. My family was going to experience animals like Marlin had and just as nature intended – from behind a thick sheet of glass.

With the drunken frivolity of the College World Series (see Part 2) safely outside and across the street, we met my wife’s college friends and their families ready to tour one of the best zoos in the Midwest.

The zoo, founded as Riverview Park zoo in 1894, attracts more than 1 million visitors a year to its indoor desert, indoor rain forest, great ape exhibits and an aquarium that holds 1.3 million gallons of salt water. Oh, and sharks. Lots and lots of sharks.

But it was at the indoor rain forest where the spirit of Marlin Perkins watched from a safe bench outside as our group braved the interior.

Water drips from the upper reaches of the Lied Jungle, and howler monkeys fill the air with their hoots. Immense fish, big enough to swallow a human baby, swim in a shallow indoor creek as tapirs wander the banks. A rope bridge, a tunnel teeming with vampire bats, and dirt trails lead visitors through re-creations of the jungles of Asia, Africa and South America.

The Lied Jungle, we later discovered, is something called a “total immersion exhibit,” which, translated into English, meant one of us was going to be attacked by a monkey.

My wife’s friend Debbie pushed her three-year-old son Ben through the South American rain forest, Ben nibbling at Cheerios scattered on the tray of his stroller, and everyone oblivious to the orange flying death that stalked them.

The green and white sign on a wooden placard in the rainforest read: “Please DO NOT Climb Tree,” although no one could read it through the one-pound golden lion tamarin streaking through the air.

The tiny monkey thumped onto Ben’s tray, scattering Cheerios onto the rainforest floor. The adults screamed. Ben screamed, his relationship with Curious George ruined forever. The other children screamed. The monkey screamed … and possibly pooped.

Terrified of the giant howling humans, the tamarin leapt into the trees and escaped to safety.

The rest of the zoo was impressive and fun, but much less threatening.

Thanks, Jim Fowler, that was the best zoo trip ever.

Next week: The Railswest Railroad Museum.

Copyright 2009 by Jason Offutt

You can order Jason’s books on the paranormal, “Darkness Walks: The Shadow People Among Us,” and “Haunted Missouri: A Ghostly Guide to Missouri’s Most Spirited Spots,” at

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