Our 2008 Road Trip, Part 12: Walk with the Animals, Balk at the Animals


A teenager taking a reluctant wildcat on a walk. What’s the worst that could happen?

When my son was younger and first began tagging along on our road trips in 2003, we tried to include either one zoo or one amusement park on each itinerary as a concession for his sake. We’d already fulfilled the 2008 quota with an entire day spent at Busch Gardens Europe. On our way home we ran across another zoo we hadn’t considered, that hadn’t shown up in our review of mainstream Virginia brochures. We were in the area, the timing was convenient, and the sign out front promised tourists could have their pictures taken with live tiger cubs, presumably small and furry and adorable. That part sounded fun.

I mean, sure, we wound up having one of the most frightening moments in our entire 18-year road trip history. But hey: happy fun animals! Well, some of them. Sorta. The ones that weren’t bitter, at least.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, marvels, history, and institutions we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. Beginning with 2003’s excursion to Washington DC, we added my son to the roster and tried to accommodate his preferences and childhood accordingly.

Our 2007 drive down to Orlando had one personal milestone for me: my first contact with the Atlantic Ocean. My moment lasted about ten minutes before thunderstorms chased us away from the coast. As Atlantic beach experiences go, Florida gave me a lousy first impression. For 2008 we decided a second try was in order. Rather than take back-to-back trips to the same state, we researched other east-coast beach options, judged them by their nearby attractions, adjusted for our modest budget that couldn’t possibly afford upper-class oceanfront accommodations, and settled on what we hoped would be a suitable sequel.

Thus in this year of our Lord did we declare: the Goldens are going to Virginia Beach!

bear statue!

Bear statue greeter either welcoming us to its neighborhood or shouting, “GET OUT! GET OUT!”

DAY SIX: Wednesday, July 17, 2008.

Partway into our escape from Virginia, we made an unplanned stop at the Natural Bridge Zoo. My son’s love of animals has been well documented in past vacation write-ups, so we figured we had nothing to lose with this spontaneous concession to his recurring boredom. With that offer of a photo op with cute widdle tiger cubby-kins as incentive, We would’ve had to be cold-blooded to pass that up.

white tiger!

The adult white tiger, on the other hand, had to catch up on some napping.

The front section of the zoo was the kind of facility we hadn’t seen in years…the throwback kind where you can see a plethora of animals confined in their natural habitats of concrete slabs and chain-link fences. I’ve sometimes complained about more modern zoos, where the animals have acres for roaming but choose to spend the day napping as far away from us gawkers as possible. At first glance, I thought this zoo might offer a nice change of pace in that regard — animals up close and personal for interaction and posing and whatnot.

I hadn’t counted on the kind of closeup you see up there in our lead photo. That’s the sort of moment a guy never forgets.

The second after I snapped that pic from thirty feet away, the wildcat then turned sharply, gave me a bloodthirsty hissing, and flailed its claws in my general direction until the “trainer” asserted herself and continued the cat’s daily drag in the other direction. Thirty feet, a 90-pound girl, and a Dollar General pet leash were all that separated the cat’s fangs and my jugular.

When my wife and I look back on our travel experiences and tell people 2008 was our least favorite to date, three distinct memories hit me all at once to support this last-place ranking: the intense, persistent pains that made me miserable all week long; the endless, oppressive sunshine that doubled our negativity whenever something went wrong; and the killer cat that thought I would make an excellent scratching post.

Many of the other animals weren’t much happier in the sweltering summer heat. The rear section of the zoo appeared to be former farmland renovated into several larger, roofless enclosures for the larger animals. One central area promised elephant rides, but no takers approached the sign. Only a handful of us tourists dotted the acreage that day, milling about the pens and fraternizing with the animals who wandered the grounds as freely as we did around and outside their ugly fences.

bear bath!

A non-statuary bear tries to make the most of the situation.

piggy sleeping!

Hairy piggy napping in self-defense.

llama feeding!

Llamas were willing to approach for the promise of feeding.

llamas in repose!

Llamas chilling with us out of bounds.

Free Llama!

The smartest llama found the best shade behind a building.


Donkey willing to settle for just some gentle affection.


Goats desperate for grub now now now.

deer shed!

Herd of deer retreating to their distant shelter like, “NOPE, WE AIN’T MOVIN’. JUST THROW THE FEED AT US, OVERHAND. COME ON, MAN, BE COOL.”


The giraffe was a little beyond our reach.

sad monkeys!

Sad monkeys wishing Sarah McLachlan would write a song for them.

birdie redeye!

Unidentified birdie who was probably alive, I think.

Kookaburra staring!

A kookaburra tries hypnotizing us into unlocking its cage, to no avail.


Some of the permanent residents eyed us suspiciously through their metal bars, giving parts of the zoo an uneasy Arkham vibe.

On our way out, despite our instant-onset depression and pity, we realized we never saw the tiger cub photo area. We inquired at the front desk, only to be told they wouldn’t be doing those today. Good to know, far too late.

To learn more about the Natural Bridge Zoo and why our long walking tour felt like hospital visiting hours, it’s interesting to take a plunge into what the local media have had to say in recent times. I’ve limited the following list of sample articles to one per year for the last five years, any of which should give you an idea of the problems at hand.

* 2014: Natural Bridge Zoo answers allegations of animal maltreatment

* 2015: Natural Bridge Zoo to remain closed, judge says (Sources from that time frame indicate the zoo was shut down from roughly March to May 2015…)

* 2016: New Report: Numerous violations at Natural Bridge Zoo

* 2017: Another inspection of Natural Bridge Zoo leads to more citations

* 2018: Natural Bridge Zoo ranked among 10 worst zoos for elephants

My personal favorite is the one where the owner protests that the USDA’s inspections are getting too nitpicky because of pressure from “radical” groups such as PETA or the Humane Society.

Yes, that Humane Society. “Radical”. Direct quote.

To be continued!

* * * * *

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email signup for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my TV live-tweeting and other signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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