On my June trip to Wichita, Kansas, I went to the Sedgwick County Zoo with my high school pal, Richelle Mattson and her young daughters, Arabella and Rebecca. The family has a membership, and Arabella knows exactly what she wants to see: Horses.
She’s 3, so I lifted her up onto the fences in the American Barn so she could talk to the horses.
Watching her examine the animals, ask Richelle and me questions about them and often take my hand as we walked reminded me of all the times I came with my mother when I was a child.
Growing up in Wichita, I went there on elementary school trips, my sack lunch in hand. I visited with my family almost once a year, usually on one of the annual free days.
Once, I helped make and serve chocolate sprinkled doughnuts during the annual Zoobilee fundraiser when I worked at Krispy Kreme in college.
So the zoo and I are acquainted.
During one of my earliest visits at age 2, tiny toddler me was inquisitive — and possibly a little too fearless.
Photographs from the visit show me exploring the petting zoo, petting goats and a young calf in my pale blue Mickey Mouse T-shirt. My younger cousin peeks from his stroller or from my aunt’s arms. Looking back at my mother and aunt make me hope ‘80s hair never comes back in style.
What the images don’t show is how, in my explorations, I pulled the mother cow’s tail or how she planted her hoof in the center of my chest and knocked me over.
I bounced onto my diaper-clad behind and cried. My mother’s heart stopped in a panic only a parent can experience, expecting me to be harmed. (I wasn’t.)
And my aunt? She laughed — a point my mother mentions with a scowl every time she tells the story.
The zoo also is the spot of one of my favorite pranks.
Not long after the North American exhibit opened, we visited when I was a preteen. While my family took a break at the Big Bear Watering Hole, I asked to go ahead, testing my independence limits.
At the end of the walkway, there’s an elk, which looked enough like a caribou I’d seen on TV. My cousin was still heavily invested in Santa, so when I got back to them, I announced that Santa’s reindeer were down there.
My cousin took off at a dead sprint. I earned a dirty look from my aunt before she took off after him and a short “That’s not very nice, Vanessa,” from my mother.
It probably wasn’t, but it was funny.
My cousin returned, disappointed. My aunt returned, still out of breath. And I wasn’t allowed to go ahead again.
The zoo is also where, at 6, me and my ponytail bounced at my mother’s side, begging for our thin 110 mm Kodak.
“Can I have the camera? Please. Can I?” I pestered while she waited in line to buy us popcorn. “Please? I want to take a picture.”
Finally, she shook her head, thrust the camera at me and admonished me to stay in sight.
I grabbed it from her hand and hustled across the pavement toward the elephant enclosure. I started across the walkway when my mother told me I’d gone far enough.
So I snapped the photograph I wanted from where I stood and returned the camera to my mother.
Later, after the images were developed, my mother found my photo in one of those grocery store photo envelopes.
“This? This is what you wanted a photo of so bad?” she asked, holding it out.
I took the small glossy rectangle from her and admired my work.
“Yes.” I was pleased with myself.
For years to come, I’d remember the first photograph I ever took: a far-away, poorly composed shot of the backsides of two of Sedgwick County’s largest residents.