It was approaching dusk as I entered the Philadelphia Zoo with my family. The first steps I took past the wrought iron gates of America’s first zoo made me realize what a unique opportunity this was. I was at the zoo at 7:30 p.m. when the typical closing time was 5p.m. This was due to my mother’s employers: AmeriHealth Caritas, a health insurance company. They gave each of their employees 2 free tickets and opportunities to buy more at a discounted price. The zoo was closed to the public but open to all the employees, and their families from 6p.m. to 10 p.m. for one night only.
So there I was with the sky steadily getting darker, looking upon a sea of blinking blue lights that came from the glow sticks that zoo employees handed out to those who wanted one. I could hear children laughing and adults happily greeting each other with hugs and exclamations of joy. “There are usually one or two smaller events a week, like morning walks or 5k runs,” says employee Nick Bisaccia who is on the event staff. “We usually only have ones this big once or twice a month”.
“Big” was a good description for this event. Despite it being dark and many of the exhibits either being off limits or the animals unable to been seen, there was a large number of people visiting and having a good time. The open buildings, especially the PECO Primate Reserve, were a swarm of people oohing and ahhing over the animals. Sadly, most of the primates were asleep. However, in the Reptiles and Amphibians house, the snakes were surprisingly active, bringing to mind the escaped snake scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
“I wish I could have seen more animals,” Amy Dedrick, an employee of AmeriHealth Caritas, told me with a slight frown. “I am such an animal person that I came to the zoo with that purpose in mind, but I actually don’t think this was about that.” When I asked her what she meant, she thought about it for a minute. “Most of us work from home,” she said, “me included, so we don’t get to see each other often. I think this was more about getting together than seeing the animals.”
For Alicia McNeil, it was not just about seeing friends, but nostalgic memories as well. “I used to work here when I was 17,” she told me with a smile and a small laugh, after inviting me to sit on the bench beside her. “I worked in ticket sales.” She continued, “I interacted with a lot of different people. On a good day, the zoo would get around three thousand people visiting.” She gave me a warm smile and fell silent for a little bit. “That was 9 years ago. Everything has changed.” She explained to me that the carousel (that we happened to be sitting near) was new, and that there used to be camel and elephant rides but they weren’t there anymore. Her reason for no longer working there was because she went back to school for nursing, but she was glad that she got to visit the zoo again. “My favorite thing was seeing the children happy,” she recalled.
And happy they were, even at the increasingly later hour. A DJ was set up in front of the Impala Fountain, where there were a couple of strobe-like lights flashing onto the ground, while The Electric Slide and other kid-friendly danceable songs were played to the enjoyment of everyone. Kids danced while parents rested and prepared for the drive home.
As for me, I reflected on everything I had seen on the drive home, drifting in and out of sleep, confident in my mom’s ability to get us all home safely. I, like Mrs. Dedrick, would have liked to have seen more animals, but the few that I did see made me smile. My favorite was seeing the Bolivian Gray Titi Monkeys twining their tails together as they slept. They wanted to keep their loved ones close even in sleep. That’s something I think all of us can agree on.