Behind the scenes


It really wasn’t a threat. It was more like a promise. “If you act up, start whining, or otherwise irritate me, you’ll stay at the zoo and shovel elephant poo. We’ll pick you up in the morning.” The “we” being The Wife and me.

The source of the whining we hoped not to hear during our car ride to the zoo was a “Tween” boy, the older brother of our two granddaughters. Don’t worry, I didn’t know what a Tween was either. The Wife said it was someone between ages 10 and 12. And all my life I thought between 10 and 12 was 11.

At first, trying to convince the Tween that I was sincere in my promise, and wasn’t just shoveling elephant poo, was difficult. Takes a lot to grab the attention of kids nowadays. But as I started the story of when Dad left me and my three brothers at the zoo shoveling elephant poo, I had his full attention.

“You mean your dad really left you at the zoo?” Wedging himself ‘tween the two car seats now occupied by our granddaughters, Little One and Sweet Caroline, he didn’t even complain. Seems my plan of distraction was working perfectly.

As we pulled into our local coffee shop with the green roof for our morning jolt of caffeine, I glanced over at The Wife who was now attempting to hide her smile. She had heard the zoo and elephant poo story many times before, but this day the ending would be a surprise to her and, I must admit, me also.

So what happened at the zoo? Keep reading Dear Reader and watch your step. You’re about to be knee deep in this story.

For those seven magical years we spent growing up on Flamingo Street, Dad made it a point to take all of us to the zoo once in the spring and again in the fall. Before starting out on each trip he issued the same warning, “Any of y’all misbehave or start whining, then everyone’s gonna shovel elephant poo.”

With three brothers and one annoying older sister to torment during the hour-long car ride, I just knew we were all doomed. But at least we’d see the zoo and get up close and personal with elephants. Besides, how bad could it be? I lived in the same bedroom with Twin Brother Mark, and his part of the room always smelled like the backside of an elephant.

Every trip we took to the zoo ended the same way. My three brothers and I helping Dad shovel elephant poo, and The Sister shopping for souvenirs with Mom. But the story doesn’t end at the elephant’s behind. After filling six huge bags, Dad sealed the tops and then stacked them in the back of our lime green station wagon with the faux wood panels.

Once home he made us stack them down by his garden. I didn’t know until years later that we shoveled one of the best natural fertilizers, or that secretly Dad had paid the folks at the zoo for the poo prior to our visit. Yep, that’s right. We ate vegetables fertilized with elephant poo the whole time growing up on Flamingo. And we liked it.

The Wife and I pulled into the zoo around 10 a.m., with the Tween and our two granddaughters in tow. At that point there had been no whining or any other complaining emanating from the backseat. We saw wombats, pink flamingos, fed giraffes, argued as to whether zebras were black with white stripes or white with black stripes, ducked as an owl swooped down and almost landed on Big Papa’s head.

Note to Reader: Be forewarned that while watching the birds of prey show at the Zoo, don’t stand up to go to the restroom. Owls will land on the highest thing around — even if the highest thing happens to be a slightly bald head.

We then made our way to the elephants. They entertained us by walking over, flapping their ears and curling their trunks just to say hello to Little One and Sweet Caroline.

After lunch (zoo pizza is the best I’ve ever tasted) a carousel and train ride, The Wife got tired of listening to the complaints of hot feet, sore hip, and tired shoulders. And that was just from me. After four hours it was time to go. That’s when the Tween started to whine. Seems he really wanted to see the gorillas and the rest of us just wanted to go back home. Eventually the adults won out as a deal was made on our way back to the gift shop and exit.

First, we bought a family pass, which gave us unlimited visits to the zoo for an entire year. Second, I promised that on the very next visit, our first stop would be the gorillas, reptiles and giant turtles.

For all you parents out there that were wondering: the only thing that moves slower than a whining Tween is a giant turtle.

Finally, to end all the whining, I gave the Tween $75. Nope it wasn’t a bribe. Smiling, I handed over the money and told him to turn around and read the sign. We would see him in the morning.

The sign read: “Behind the scenes elephant tours $75. Hand feed elephants a snack! Touch their trunk! Help with cleanup.”

Shoveling elephant poo – the perfect cure for whining.

[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories since 2001. To read more of Rick’s stories, visit his blog:]