Thursday, March 5, 2015

We Bought a Zoo

Daddy and I enjoy the Zoorama train - 1960

Funny how little life events can bring back a flood of memories. I was in my watercolor class this week, beginning a new painting of a zebra. For some reason, I was pretty excited about this new subject matter, and didn’t understand why. Then I remembered. Back in 1960, we bought a zoo.

Well, it was kind of a zoo. It was called Zoorama located in New Market, Virginia and I remember Mom told me Dad and some friends invested in the tourist attraction in early 1960. According to an article I found from the March 6, 1960 Philadelphia Inquirer, it was an 80 acre park housing over 67 species from 23 countries that included a petting zoo and small circus display. (See the article here: I don’t remember that. I just remember the magical place I’d go with my parents and little sister. I remember the animals. And I remember the train we’d ride in that circled the park. Because I was only about three, the details are faint, but the feelings are still strong.

I remember being genuinely surprised by new creatures I’d never seen, the feeling of being safe in my dad’s arms as I reached out to pet a camel, and of experiencing the bliss that only a young child, free from daily worries, can enjoy. It was pure magic for me. Not so for my parents.

I was told, decades later, that Zoorama was on Route 11 in Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley and attracted thousands of visitors from all over the east coast. That is until just a couple years after my parent’s invested, and the new interstate came through western Virginia. This forever changed the tourist traffic pattern which, according to my dad, “killed” the business. I recall we stopped going to visit the animals and Dad started spending a lot of time in meetings and on the phone. Mom told me later that he spent countless hours calling zoos and sanctuaries all over the country trying to find homes for the animals after the park closed to the public. Evidently, it was a huge financial mess for my parents. Only years later would Dad even talk about it.

When we were cleaning out my parent’s home after Dad moved to an assisted living facility, my brother, sister and I found a few Zoorama flyers and carefully packed them in a box and put it into storage with much of the rest of our childhood. No matter. Starting to paint this watercolor zebra brought the magic of this childhood memory back to me.

No, our family experience wasn’t like that of Matt Damon’s character in the 2011 movie We Bought a Zoo, but it was pretty cool.

Me at the Zoorama "petting zoo"