Gathering experiences instead of t-shirts

Zooziana's owner George Oldenberg gets up close and personal with Gabriel.

Somewhere along the way, I stopped buying the t-shirt. I realized I just didn’t need another one.

I didn’t need proof that I had been there or done that. A few years after that grand realization, I stopped wanting little knickknacks and whatnots. More didn’t equal better or more beautiful — it simply equaled more. More to clean or dust or put away.

Through the years we have done our best to provide our children with what they need, but, for better or worse, we also started trying to cement in their perspectives the value of experiences over things.

As Greer, our oldest daughter, approached her 18th birthday, she couldn’t name one thing she wanted as a gift. She is not your typical 18-year-old girl. She listens to the beat of her own drummer — and the thing that interests her most is working with animals. I wasn’t sure what we were going to do or how we were going to celebrate her birthday, but I wanted it to be special.

When I spoke with George Oldenburg, the owner of Zoosiana, we came up with an idea.

Years ago, George was living a normal life and working in a bank. Then, in 2002, he bought a zoo. Needless to say, his life has changed in the years since.

On the day Greer turned 18, George met us at the front gate of the zoo just as it was closing. As a party of five, we were the only humans in the zoo. Granted, it’s not a typical gift for an 18-year-old girl, but for our girl, it worked just fine!

Walking around the maze of paths and seeing how the animals responded to George was truly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced. He gave us the up close and personal experience with the animals, and we had the chance to learn so much about their personalities and the care required to keep them healthy.

With George as our guide, we were able to get closer to some animals than I had ever thought about being. For example, I wasn’t certain I wanted to let a lion lick my hand (through a strong fence, I might add), but I did. And just like a house cat, you’ll be pleased to know that a lion’s tongue feels like sandpaper. And, for the record, a giraffe’s tongue is long and purple. We learned that as Gabriel, the zoo’s male giraffe and George’s favorite animal, ate some leaves from a small branch I was holding.

We also were able to get up close and personal (with a fence between us) with two tigers — I was a nervous wreck, but my daughters loved it. We learned that cranes are rather mean. The parakeets were fantastic and very social. There’s a monkey named Myron that loves to ring a bell for treats. The aforementioned lions (with the sandpaper tongues) are from the MGM lions in Las Vegas. We learned that George’s zoo, Zoosiana, has the largest collection of squirrel monkeys in the country, and that he had to find a different home for a donated parrot that talked like a sailor.

All in all, he has more than 150 types of animals. When he showed us the food prep area, we were amazed to learn just how well these animals eat! There are seven feeding routines and zookeepers keep careful reports of how the animals are eating. We also saw the zoo’s vet center where sick animals are tended.

All in all, it was a magical night — one our family will treasure for decades to come. In fact, the night went so well that George has decided to make the experience available to others. I am grateful for the opportunity.

In our time together, I could see that George values experience in much the same way we do. The joy in his life is not that he owns a zoo. From what I can tell, the real reward to George is the experience with the animals — and that’s what he shared with us.

 

 

 

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