Sadly, the carousel is not the only part of the zoo with an early closing time. Although it's open seven days a week, Henry Vilas Zoo only permits people to visit from 9:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. The rest of the time, the only thing on tap is a boring virtual tour.
Henry Vilas Zoo was something we took for granted when I was growing up in Madison back in the days when Ike was president, Checkers was still alive, and there were only 48 states. You went there to see Winkie the elephant; ride the Zor Shrine camels on Sunday mornings; visit monkey island; and peer at the slothful crocodiles, wondering if they were dead or just sleeping. You rode the miniature train and climbed aboard a painted horse on the merry-go-round. You pleaded with your parents to buy you a popsicle, and wondered exactly what your aunt meant when she claimed the chimps were making rude gestures at her. Lots people who grew up in Madison back then also have fond memories of the zoo.
It was free because the Vilas family stipulated it should always be free. But it was also open. Sure, the bird house and the reptile house closed at night, but no one prohibited you from entering the zoo at sunrise, or escorted you to an exit long before the sun set in the summer months. The animals were in cages, or houses, or behind fences, or across moats. Now they're in cages within a cage. High fences surround the zoo and keep visitors out most of the time. Perhaps it's because, as a young security guard told me, this current generation isn't as well-behaved as ours was: they don't pay attention to what their parents and teachers tell them.
So, anyway, there I was with a mere 45 minutes to visit, and at first it seemed as if the animals were doing their best to be almost as boring as those crocodiles of yore.
The black swans from Australia were unmoving, curled into snug packages.
The pelican was paddling around pretending to be a swan.
Then suddenly I heard a thrilling noise. Unique and unforgettable, it's a heady combination that starts out with the crisp sound of a sandalwood fan snapping open. A prolonged rustling follows: layers of starched crinolines briskly moving from timid susurration to a bold, sustained whirring.
And yes, indeed, there it was, the sight you yearned to see every time you visited the zoo. The sight you rarely were fortunate to behold: a peacock strutting his stuff, showing off his magnificent train. Oh yes! It was definitely spring. But the girls weren't very interested. The peahens ambled over to take a look, then departed, unimpressed.
The kangaroos didn't say a word, but they stopped hopping around, pausing to stare. Maybe they were hoping to catch a glimpse of some exotic hanky-panky.
Undeterred by the peacock's failure to impress the ladies, the turkey who lives in the same enclosure decided to do struff his stuff. Up went his tail, over came the ladies. Not interested. Rebuffed so quickly, the turkey went limp before I could capture his display of feathers on film.
Turning around, I saw the pelican, out of the water and spreading his wings, looking much fiercer and more impressive than he had a few minutes earlier.
Then a cardinal attracted my attention and began to flirt with my camera, flitting from one location to another everytime I raised that small device to my eye.
Finally, wearying of the game, he stopped in a picture-perfect location. He waited for me to record his vibrant beauty, then flew away because, unlike the bigger birds, he could.
It was almost time to leave and it was evident this visit belonged to the birds. The marsupials had been voyeurs. The bears, perhaps, were just too tired to perform. Time to leave. Next time maybe I'll be able to ride a carousel bear -- or maybe the polar bears will decide it's time to take the plunge and put on a show between 9:30 a.m. and 5 p.m.