Herb Hunter

In keeping with my theme of cost savings that I have reviewed in this column for the last few weeks, I thought I would highlight an inexpensive outing that provides education, family bonding, and entertainment, in a very unique setting. Remember, even in hard economic times, it is important to escape the bad news, if only for a short period of time. These brief respites from the daily hammering of bad economic forecasts are an important component of overall good health, in my opinion.

My daughter, Clare, and I, spent an evening at the Cincinnati Zoo a couple of weeks ago, "sleeping with the manatees." No, this is not a reference to the elimination of uncooperative mob members who were "sleeping with the fishes," in the movie, "The Godfather," nor was underwater scuba gear required during the outing. Only three things were required, a sleeping bag, a bedtime snack, and a willingness to learn about conservation outreach programs.

The zoo makes overnight programs available to school groups and scouts throughout the year, but family nights are offered less frequently, usually four or five times annually. My lovely wife, Julia, has never enjoyed camping, and considers "roughing it" to be sleeping in a Holiday Inn Express, instead of a standard Holiday Inn. Not to be deterred, Clare and I wished Julia a pleasant evening, packed up our sleeping gear, and headed toward the Queen City.

Upon arrival at the zoo, our activities started immediately, following a brief introduction to the zookeepers that stayed with us that evening, Todd and Jocelyn, and to the resident manatees, two rescued sirenians from Florida named "Slip" and "Little Joe," who served as our "hosts" for the night.

After dropping off our sleeping gear in a corner of the Manatee Springs building, Jocelyn showed us some manatee rib bones, and we compared them to human rib bones, noting the difference in size. This served as a prelude to our tour of the manatee tank and the manatee feeding area, where the equivalent of 60 lettuce heads, in a variety of greens, are prepared for each manatee each day, to help them maintain nearly 2,000 pounds of weight. One of the manatees came up to a ledge close to where we were standing in the back of the tank, nearly pulling himself out of the water, in what seemed to be a pose for our cameras, showing no fear of the human visitors.

Both Slip and Little Joe are from a Florida rescue program, and are not permanent residents of the Cincinnati Zoo. Once representatives from the rescue organization feel the manatees are capable of survival on their own, they will be placed in a preserve prior to release into the ocean, with a detachable radio antenna around their tails, allowing biologists to follow their progress. Several manatees have "graduated" from the zoo program, and have done well in the wild.

Before settling in for the night, we enjoyed an evening hike through the zoo, stopping at wetlands exhibits, showing simulated natural habitats of other Florida species, such as alligators and waterfowl, who share space with the manatees, in keeping with the wetland theme of the evening.

Upon our return to the Manatee Springs building, as we prepared for bed, our zookeepers introduced us to an armadillo, a baby alligator, and a barn owl, to the delight of those assembled. Clare and I drifted off to sleep, watching our manatee friends gently floating and rolling, with only a glass barrier separating us from the water in the tank.

Jocelyn woke us at 7 a.m. the next morning, giving us 30 minutes to pack up and leave the exhibit. (This allows janitorial staff to prepare the display for visitors before the zoo officially opens at 9 a.m., although our group didn’t leave much of a mess.) We enjoyed a breakfast in the educational building, which was followed by a demonstration from the Cincinnati Zoo’s "Cat Ambassador Program," that included tricks from a Serval, another wetland dweller from Central Africa.

All this for only $30 each, should you enjoy membership privileges at the zoo, or $35 per person, for everyone else. My alma mater, the University of Cincinnati, is only a couple of blocks from the zoo, and it is often difficult to tell where the UC campus ends and the zoo begins, in both a geographic and figurative sense. In fact, I became a member of the zoo, indirectly, through the UC Athletics Department. (Julia and Clare would attend Bearcat football and basketball games with me, only if a trip to the zoo was included each time.) Regardless, it is one of my best investments, particularly in light of my recent stock market decisions.

Take a walk on the wild side and spend some time with your family and our endangered furry friends. When you wake up to a smiling manatee, 401K losses don’t seem as important.

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