Garden Road Zoo

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A tiger’s breath is visible on the glass separating her from Jasmine Selby at Blank Park Zoo on June 23. / Photo by Jason W. Selby

When I was a boy, my Vietnam veteran father took us on one of our summer ‘vacations,’ which never stretched far beyond Des Moines or out of Iowa or Missouri. As a rule, once back Stateside, most of those boys never wanted to leave home again. Tellingly, my dad described his war experience as his vacation in Vietnam.

Our family went to the Blank Park Zoo that humid, overcast summer day in the 1980s. I do not remember much, but my father thought the primates were hilarious. Though covered in fur, their backsides were exposed, swollen and red.

“It looks like they have hemorrhoids,” Dad laughed.

He had seen monkeys before, along with elephants, scorpions, a nasty little jungle snake called a krait that resorted to cannibalism if its venomous fangs could not sink into anything else, or if it just got bored. As well, Vietnam featured footlong leeches you had to burn off with a cigarette, etc. For a year, my father got back to nature.

Then the Allied forces burned off most of the canopy with a carcinogenic and deformity causing chemical. It took root in all life. The branches spread to America and became my family’s inheritance. Some are born into fortunes, saved from war by bone spurs or obesity, but the gift I give my children is greater than money, more imposing, like a monster roaring and unseen by the naked eye. The broken are strong. They refuse to give up life, though they are rewarded with cancer rather than their father’s wealth.

This year, I returned with my family to the zoo on the south side of Des Moines. Outside the tortoises, which will outlive me, most of the animals I visited long ago are dead. In the red panda exhibit, the creatures remained inside the building, while an overfed chipmunk tried to find a way over the glass fence.

We went to Blank Park for my son Grant’s seventh birthday. He grew angry when I tried to snap photographs of him with my smart phone. My wife was sick and could not be there, therefore it was the only way she would be able to witness our children’s reactions to flamingos, which my son Wes could not see enough of, and rhinos, which my daughter Jasmine refused to acknowledge. She would not look in their direction. The best guess we have as to why, is that Jasmine says she does not like it when they open their mouths, but whatever the reason, she could not fully translate her fear.

When we entered the large cat enclosure, a female tiger wanted to play. She leapt up above the children, exposing her white belly and smearing mud on the window. She trotted back to her pool, splashed a plastic barrel in the water, pounced back to the glass to smile. Jasmine touched the window. The tiger got so close to her hand you could see the breath fogging the glass as she felt its shadow. They were one.

In that same building, Grant lost his temper while sitting in a safari truck sans windshield. His big sister Natalie tried to hold him down. I still took the picture of Grant grimacing within her grasp. Grant was incensed. Though we bought him boxing gloves and a heavy bag, presenting them for his birthday—to channel this anger passed down (I blame my father, because, why not?)—at the zoo, he shoved and punched me. I did not mind as long as he hit hard.

A peacock strutted on the loose. Flannery O’Connor wrote she saw the universe in their feathers. But their song, if you can call it that, is tormented at best.