May 23, 2018
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Many surprises and lessons at Boston zoo (Yes, there is a zoo in Boston!)

Sarah Smiley
By Sarah Smiley

Several months ago, right around Easter, Lindell, 5, suddenly looked up from an otherwise quiet dinner and said, “Mom, I believe in the Easter Bunny, and I believe in God, but I do not believe in camels.”

I glanced at Ford, 11, and Owen, 9, hoping one of them understood this proclamation and its origin.

They seemed as confused as I was.

“Why don’t you believe in camels, Lindell?” I asked.

Lindell shrugged. “I’ve never seen anything they’ve done,” he said.

Incidentally, Lindell’s dad is deployed to a part of the world where camels often outnumber people. “I can send him some evidence of what camels do,” Dustin said.

I declined the offer but told Dustin that photographs might help. Dustin sent us a picture of a truck filled with camels in the back.

Lindell looked down his nose at the image on my iPhone. “Horses,” he said, then he went about his business.

In Lindell’s defense, he hasn’t seen many different kinds of animals. And it’s all my fault. Lindell made that very clear last summer when we took the boys to the Museum of Natural History at Harvard. After more than an hour of looking at stuffed zebras, birds and elephants, Ford and Owen said the museum was “cool,” but “not like seeing animals in action at a zoo.”

Lindell asked what a “zoo” is like, and my heart sank as I realized my youngest child, the one without a scrapbook of his first year, had never been to one.

“At a zoo, you can see all those animals walking around and eating,” Owen said excitedly. “Sometimes they come up to see you and everything.”

Lindell stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. “You mean there’s a place where we can see animals that aren’t dead?”

Dustin and I looked at each other in horror. Then Dustin silently, knowingly, nodded. We would take Lindell to a zoo ASAP.

Between last summer’s museum trip and Lindell’s camel comment, however, a lot of things happened, and none of them involved a zoo. Dustin left for deployment in November, and we began our weekly dinners in January. Before the snow had even melted in our backyard, I emailed the Franklin Park Zoo, just outside of Boston, and asked if we could do a Dinner with the Smileys with a zookeeper. In my letter, I shared Lindell’s skepticism about camels and his desire to see animals that “aren’t dead.”

The Franklin Park Zoo loved the idea and set up a picnic lunch and private tour for us with the zoo’s president (also a former zookeeper and University of Maine graduate) John Linehan. It was our 26th (the halfway-point!) dinner.

As it turns out, the Franklin Park Zoo was also celebrating a milestone: its 100th anniversary. The fantastically old, stone, arched entryway — the one that Lindell blew right past screaming, “I’m at a zoo! I’m at a zoo! I’m finally at a zoo!” — boasts the facility’s history. In the back of the zoo, however, there is evidence (stage directions and markings on the concrete) of its recent fame: the Franklin Park Zoo is where the movie “Zookeeper” was filmed.

Another surprise: I learned something about humans at the Franklin Park Zoo. The zoo’s infamous gorilla Little Joe, who twice escaped several years ago, beats on his chest and smashes the enclosure’s window when he sees Mr. Linehan, the “alpha gorilla,” come near. Without the glass, however, Little Joe is less aggressive and more cautious.

I wondered if Little Joe has a computer, and if he ever visits online message forums.

And then there was the lion. He roared several times, and the boys asked Mr. Linehan, “What do those roars mean?”

“He’s telling other lions that this is his territory.”

“But there are no other lions here,” Ford astutely pointed out.

“The lion doesn’t know that. He thinks his roaring is really effective; he’s never seen another lion.”

Substitute any number of individuals in place of the lion, and you have a psychiatrist’s share of insight into people’s behavior that makes us go, “Huh?”

On to the camels! We had to see camels. Ford and Owen couldn’t wait to prove their little brother wrong.

We found the camel enclosure at the end of a sidewalk, just past the lion and tigers. The camels chewed their food with fat lips and stared at Lindell across the grass. It was as if they were saying, “Happy now, kid?”

Lindell was quiet as he watched them. We all made a big deal of it: See! Camels! But Lindell didn’t answer. He turned on his heel and walked away. “Robots,” he called back to us over his shoulder.

Ford, Owen and I looked at each other. Ford shrugged.

It will be our pleasure to take Lindell to the Franklin Park Zoo again and again until we get this whole thing sorted out.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at


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