If you ever see me at the Detroit Zoo, you may want to plan your escape route.

For my seventh birthday, my parents loaded up the station wagon for a fun-filled family trip to the Detroit Zoo. My grandmother, who lived with us at the time, piled in the car with the rest of us and off we went for the three-hour drive. Windows rolled down for au naturel air-conditioning, three of us kids just rolling around in the back baking in the sun with no seatbelts, no bottled water, and nothing to do but bicker and play endless rounds of “I Spy”.

The zoo’s water tower, rising majestically in the distance, beckoned like Xanadu. Excitement rippled through the Oldsmobile as Dad maneuvered it off the highway and we entered the parking labyrinth. Lips chapped, bladders full, and muscles cramped, we endured as Dad circled the lot looking for the perfect parking spot. Finally, my day of fun could begin.

We hit the ground running. Monkeys, bears, lions, we wanted to see it all. Sated with stale popcorn and lukewarm Pepsi, we made our way in a more or less orderly fashion from one exhibit to the next. Until we heard a siren in the distance. If there had been a “Weather Channel” back then, my grandmother would have watched it 24/7. She stopped in her tracks, grabbed my hand, and yelled “TORNADO!”

Everyone froze. People walking next to us froze. I’m pretty sure even the animals turned to stare. The siren blasted out another eerie moan just as a golf cart full of zoo employees slid to a stop on the path. Through a bullhorn, we were instructed to follow our guide “Mel” who would lead us to shelter. Mel jumped off the cart and we all obediently followed him to wide low-slung cinder block building. It wasn’t until we were all crammed inside that we realized we were in the ape house. Behind thick panes of glass, so were the apes.

The sound of wind and rain soon accompanied the siren, but we were dry and safe with the apes. Until my grandmother decided that the gorilla was going to escape. She was sure of it. The tornado would rend the building in half and the gorilla would be free to gobble up children and rape old women. Without warning, she grabbed the stroller holding my little sister and ran out of the building screaming.

So I spent my seventh birthday with my brother at the lost child station at the Detroit Zoo as my parents searched for my grandmother and my little sister. You’d think that would be enough to keep me away for a lifetime. But, really, what were the odds that it would ever happen again?

Fast forward twenty years or so, I’m married now and have children of my own. Two boys, 6 and 8. In a moment of madness, my husband and I decided that a trip to the Detroit Zoo would be just the thing for a dull summer’s day. Jokingly, as we walk along the exhibits, I tell my sons about my last visit. “You’re bad luck, mom,” my oldest declares. Ten minutes later, we hear the sirens.

I can hardly bring myself to believe it as we are being herded into a shelter. Keeping the boys close the hubs and I press our backs against the wall as more and more people file in. We are in the reptile house. Specifically, we are surrounded by venomous snakes behind glass.

With so many people inside, it’s difficult to actually see the exhibits and the boys quickly became bored of staring at elbows and backsides. We do our best to keep them distracted and entertained, but we can only hold off their impatience for so long. One look at my six-year-old and I know he’s about to blow. We are looking at full-on temper tantrum meltdown in a crowded confined space lined with snakes. Great. He flops down on the floor refusing to rise. Experience tells me to just let him lie there, but there are witnesses and judgmental eyes all around.

People step over him. Other kids try talking to him, one offers him some candy. He won’t budge. I’m about ready to break ranks, gather him up and run outside when my hubs put his hand on my arm and reminds me that it isn’t the end of the world. Then, that amazing, wonderful, clever man told a joke. A bad one. Didn’t matter, our eight-year-old laughed and so did some other kids. Then another dad told a joke. More laughs. Suddenly, there is an impromptu Dad Joke riff-off in the reptile house.

A few jokes later, my six-year-old got up and started talking to some other kids as if he hadn’t spent the last 15 minutes lying face down on the dirty floor. The all-clear eventually sounded and we saw the rest of the zoo without incident. Years later the boys still tease me about being a tornado magnet.

So, while my second visit to the Detroit Zoo turned out better than the first, I don’t think I’ll be pushing my luck by trying a third time. But, as my husband reminds me, we might have grandchildren to entertain one day. What are the odds?


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