Saint Louis' Forest Park

Catherine and I have been winding down our two-week vacation, which had us put nearly 2000 miles on our rental car as we drove from Branson, MO to Petersburg, KY and a hell of a lot more between. Our last few days, we spent in Saint Louis, MO. We didn’t make arrangements to go see a Cardinals game (though we probably should have), since we weren’t entirely sure when we were going to be through town, and we had some other things we wanted to see.

Those other things, consisting largely of the Saint Louis Zoo and the Saint Louis Science Center. It was a little odd, being nearly thirty and childless going through the Science Center, but Saint Louis has a truly amazing facility with some really great exhibits, and both are in Forest Park, the site of the 1903 World’s Fair in Saint Loius.

And the zoo is clearly world class, particularly in some of it’s newer areas where it boasts elaborate and accurate habitats for the animals that it keeps. Somehow, they do all of this, without charging an admission. It’s free to enter either facility, and to view the vast majority of it’s exhibits. There were a ton of dedication plaques around the exhibits, which showed how much of the new consruction and other things were financed, but for the ongoing costs (these facilities seem to employ many, and they can’t all have been volunteers), it is clear that the city of Saint Louis, and it’s people, are immensely generous to these organizations.

We spent the majority of a day at the Zoo, though it was very hot in the early part of the day, and as we passed through the African Jungle exhibits, which featured Hyenas and the like, the animals that we did see, were almost all sleeping in the dens that were dug into the habitat for them, desperately trying to stay cool. However, in that area of the park, they have an amazing Hippo exhibit, which is set up with an underwater viewing area, so you can watch the Hippo’s swim (usually staying underwater fro 5 minutes or more) and play, but also see how the cicilids that inhabit their tank coexist with the Hippos, usually by picking at the Hippo’s skin for mites and other things, while the Hippo’s longued in the relatively cool water. Next were the Elephants, including one fairly large one we got to watch spray himself down with water using his trunk.

The hilight, in my wife’s mind at least, was the Stingray Pool, which did carry a cost of $3 per person, but given that the maintenace area for the pool was at least as large as the pool itself, and the half-dozen people attending the exhibit, was still cheap. At the Stingray pool, you get the opportunity to reach into the water and pet the Stingrays (which have had their venomous sting trimmed), of which there were two varieties and a range of ages. There was an opportunity to feed the rays, using small fish that they were selling, however, we didn’t. The rays tended to approach us as if we might have anyway.

There was plenty to see, particularly as the temperature dropped some, and the animals got to be a bit more active. Including the indoor exhibits (we only got to the bird house, the Monkey house and Herpatarium closed before we reached them), there is a ton to see at this facility, and the habitats were, as I said, excellent. There was also many interesting exhibits about the work that the zoo engages in, though a surprising number of them focused on reproduction inside of Zoos. Apparently, a lot of females are kept on IUDs to keep them from getting pregnant, and that contraceptive pill that they’re working on for human men? Apparently, the Zoo’s are hoping to be able to apply it to their charges as well.

And all of that is important, after all, the last thing the Zoo’s want are a bunch of inbred animals running about, because we got pretty close to seeing Giraffe sex as a female giraffe was, we believe, pretty clearly propositioning a male who was apparently just not in the mood.

But the Zoo is far from the only activity in the park. The Jefferson History Museum seemed to be mostly free, except for the Catholic Artifacts exhbiit they had visiting, though we didn’t spend too much time there, or in the Art Musueum. There are botanical gardens, which surround an area known as the ‘Jewel Box’, which I’m sure is beautiful in June, but was a bit crispy in August. There’s Paddleboats, and an Amphitheater, and a Pavilion at the highest point in the park, overlooking Saint Louis. There are amazng statues all over the park as well. It’s nice to walk through, even in the heat.

But, where we spent the majority of our second day in the park, was at the Saint Louis Science Center, which again, is almost entirely free to the public. The Pacific Science Center in Seattle, which I’ve visited at least a dozen times, currently costs $?? so this was a really surprising deal. From the park, you enter through the Planetarium, which I think is the best way to enter the Science Center, as they have real Gemini space capsules, which were evidently built in Saint Louis, as well as spacesuits worn during those missions. As you walk toward the overpass, there is a detailed history of NASA, as well as a collection of toys and memorobilia from America’s obsession with space, ranging from Muppet Babies Astronaut Lunchboxes to Cognac decanters commerating Apollo 11. There is even a Ground Control thing that you get to take the controls of. Regrettably, this was closed for the entire day of our visit.

After the Space exhibit, there is a series on Structures, from bridges (suspension and trestle), arches (including two large arches that you can build), and earthquake resistance. As a special exhibition (which did carry a cost), there was an exhibit about a Pirate Ship that has been being recovered for the last twenty-five years or so, the Wydah, which was taken by a storm off the coast of Massachusetts three hundreds years ago. The exhibit is set up to tell two stories. First that of the ship, as it began it’s journey hauling slaves. Then, the story of the man and crew who took her and changed her into a Pirate ship.

The exhibit was really excellent, as the efforts had recovered some really amazing artifacts, including a Sun King Pistol in remarkable condition, and several three- and four-pound cannons. The exhibit presented the Pirates, not in a romantic light, but an honest light. Making it clear why so many chose to ‘go on the account’ and join a pirate crew, when it was the best chance most sailors would ever have not only of getting wealthy, but of actually earning a wage, since many legitimate captains evidently did not pay their crews the wages they were promised. The Pirates were democratic. Even the Captain was elected and held to the same articles as the rest, sleeping with the crew in common quarters. When the Wydah was captured, one of the first things the Pirates apparently did with it was remove the cabins on deck, mostly to improve the ship as a fighting platform, but it also got rid of all the amenities of class common on other ships.

It was an amazing exhibit, well worth the $16 admission, which Catherine and I viewed as partially going to cover the cost of the rest of the visit to the science center.

We then proceeded to go through the ‘History of Life’ exhibit, which was a breath of fresh air after our visit earlier this week. The dioramas were excellent, and the detail on the animatronic T-Rex was pretty cool. There were some exhibits on the automobile and gearing, and the future of energy independence. But the Life Sciences exhibits really got Catherine excited. They have some really nice mountings of birds and smaller mammals for viewing, a fossil room with a T-Rex Metatarsal and other large dinosaur bones. There was even a lab targetting 10-12 year olds where they would get the opportunity to simple, yet exciting experiments like DNA extraction, fingerprinting and a few other things, all while wearing real lab coats.

The other exhibit we spend a lot of time in, was, of course, Cyberville! They’re exhibit on the history (and future) of computing was good, though I kind of wish there had been a few other things. There was a kiosk letting you play with the binary representation of ASCII, but the best of the Binary exhibits was a train that let you send it commands, first for direction, then speed, then time. The instructions were AWFUL, but I worked with a ten year old to figure them out, and then we were able to do a basic job teaching boolean math to a few other kids. There was a robotics exhibit using LEGO Mindstorms, a laser harp, a room with a variety of sensors you could interact with. An Art room with a simple 3-D modeler, a VR exhibit (which was not functional), exhibits on how the basics of how the Internet works, and a cooperative game where you work in a team of three to create a building designed by one of the partners.

I spent WAY more time in this part of the museum than was probably necessary, but I had a lot of fun, and had a few mothers thank me for helping their kids understand the exhibits a bit better, which was nice.

Catherine and I are currently childless, but if you have children, Forest Park really seems to have something for just about anyone. And the vast majority of it is free. We really enjoyed our trip to Saint Louis, the people were nice, we found an amazing restaurant, and while it was extremely hot the majority of the trip, it was well worth the few days we got to spend in this city, and I look forward to getting to return.