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"Bedtime with the Beasts"
(This column also appeared in The Oak Ridger, July 1, 2021)

Judy Lockhart DiGregorio

“Do you think they put the tarantula back in its cage, Grandma,” a small voice whispered.

I opened one eye and stared into my grandson’s face pressed nose to nose against mine. Tailen’s arms clutched my neck. The dim glow of a night-light reflected a row of sleeping bags with tousled heads sticking out the tops. As a treat for my six-year old grandson, we were spending the night at a zoo as part of the “Bedtime with the Beasts” program.

The zoo brochure promised moonlight tours and animal encounters. Our confirmation letter directed us to meet at the rustic log cabin in the back of the zoo that Friday evening by 6 P.M. A light snack and breakfast were included in the overnight outing. I assumed light snack meant a snack supper. Alas, I misunderstood.

Snack meant sour lemonade and rationed servings of gorp, a mixture of granola, raisins, and peanuts. Each of us received a small plastic bag of gorp to last us until breakfast the next morning. Since we had not eaten before we arrived, we were disappointed to find supper was not included in the program. We grew even crankier when informed that the zoo’s concession stands were closed for the evening. We either chewed on gorp or our fingernails.

“What’s gorp, Grandma,” asked Tailen.

“It’s kind of like the stuff they feed the goats in the petting zoo,” I groaned as my stomach growled.

After our group of eight checked in, the two college-age guides gave us a short orientation. By now it was dark outside. It was time for the promised moonlight tour. Rain was pouring down so we donned our ponchos. Although we had brought flashlights, only the guides were allowed to use them. Too many flashing lights would disturb the zoo animals. Unfortunately, too few flashing lights disturbed the tour group. The night was so black that we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces.

We cautiously tripped along the dirt road lined with trees and bushes on our way back to the main zoo area.

“Your eyes will adjust soon,” intoned Guide One, as a low-hanging branch slapped me in the face. To protect my face from further injury, I adopted a Frankenstein walk with both arms held in front of me. Unfortunately, I still stepped into several puddles and potholes. The rain pelted us from every direction. Soon the only dry spot on my body was my left tonsil.

Tailen’s night vision was considerably better than mine so he did not fall into any mud puddles. He jumped into them on purpose.

Although the guides lectured on various exhibits as we slopped along, the only animals we saw were the two-legged ones in our little group. The other beasts had enough sense to stay out of the rain. They snored peacefully in their cages. They were dry.

Finally, we sloshed our way to the lion’s area and gathered under the shelter.

“Hear that panting,” whispered Guide Two. “The lions scent us. They’ve been creeping along the fence beside us as we walk by their area.”

I peered through the Plexiglas and finally saw the yellow eyes of the lions as they watched us hungrily. I wondered if we would taste better than gorp.

Due to the persistent downpour, the night tour finally had to be canceled. We splashed back to the cabin to have an indoor program. By now it was 9 P.M. I longed for a soft, warm bed.

We shook ourselves like wet dogs as we removed our ponchos and muddy shoes. Then we gathered in a circle on the rug for more lectures. We nibbled on our gorp.

The guides took turns retrieving animals for our hands-on encounters. This was the highlight of the weekend. Petting a silky-soft chinchilla gave me a warm feeling. The prickly hedgehog spent his time in the limelight rolled into a little ball. The hissing cockroach didn’t appeal to me or Tailen much, but we gamely stroked him on his brown shiny back. We didn’t try to pet the screech owl or the snake, although we did make contact with a large bull frog and gecko. The last beast of the evening was the tarantula. It looked scary, but we lightly touched its fuzzy back.

Another activity of the evening was examining animal artifacts such as horns, skulls, and teeth. The children enjoyed this activity and the prizes they won for participating. We continued nibbling gorp.

Finally, at 11 P.M. we collapsed onto our sleeping bags exhausted. We fell asleep to the sound of the lions roaring in the distance. I don’t know how many times Tailen woke me to ask about the tarantula. It was not a restful night.

Guide One woke us at 7 A.M for a breakfast of muffins and cold cereal. And more gorp. Then off we went for an early morning tour in the cool air smelling of honeysuckle. The sun was shining brightly. The animals were alert and standing near the front of their cages awaiting their breakfast. We got a good look at each of them. Tailen thoroughly enjoyed spending the night at the zoo!

All in all, “Bedtime with the Beasts” was a worthwhile, although exhausting, weekend. If you decide to do it with your grandchild, ensure that they are old enough to tolerate the lectures, sleeping on the floor, and marches through the rain. The hands-on animal encounters and the early morning tour are educational, entertaining, and fun.

Eat a substantial meal before you come because they don’t offer supper. If you should forget to eat first, just do what we did to survive the program. Pretend you’re one of the beasts and graze on gorp.

This column first appeared in Senior Living, June, 2002.

Judy Lockhart DiGregorio is a humorist, speaker, and the author of three humor books and a CD from Celtic Cat Publishing, Knoxville, TN -- Books: Life Among the Lilliputians, Memories of a Loose Woman, Tidbits, and CD: Jest Judy.

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