A Virtual Visit to Elmwood Park Zoo with An Unpaid Educational Intern Who Is Also My Cousin

Wow, gee, how time flies. It seems like just yesterday that my littlest cousin Laura was waddling around in a leotard and fake vampire teeth blinking up at me with those blue, saucer-like eyes. Or screaming in puerile terror when my cousin Jason pretended to be a wild animal lurking in the stairwell. Oh how we would laugh and laugh at her screaming.


Now that self-same Laura just enrolled in her sophomore year of college and is working as an educational intern at the Elmwood Park Zoo outside of Philadelphia. It makes sense to me because she was always really into her cats and stuffed animals. She was not as into seagulls because they would steal her french fries at the beach as evidenced by this picture here:


Oh hey, do you know who else is my cousin? And Laura’s cousin for that matter? Jonathan Groff.

Jonathan Groff

It’s true! Jonathan Groff is my second cousin. Maybe I should blog about him instead. That could be waaaaay more interesting. Or less interesting if he won’t talk to me on the phone because he doesn’t remember I’m his cousin. But waaaaaay more interesting if he would talk to me on the phone.

So welcome to the first annual Spartan Holiday Death Match!  A vicious, no-holds-barred, ancient-Greek-style fight-to-the-death to be determined in this blog! In this corner: Laura Hess. And in this other corner: Jonathan Groff.


Round 1:

Has Jonathan ever touched a chinchilla? No he has not. Laura 1, Jonathan 0.

Has Laura ever played the role of Ken in the Center Theatre Group‘s production of the Tony Award winning play Red, alongside Alfred Molina reprising his role as painter Mark Rothko.? No, she has not. Laura 1, Jonathan 1


Round 2:

Has Jonathan Groff ever made me sno-cones in a Spongebob Squarepants sno-cone machine when I was profusely hot and thirsty? No, he has not. Laura 2, Jonathan 1

Has Laura ever made her West End debut in Deathtrap,[13] at the Noël Coward Theatre in a production directed by Matthew Warchus? No she has not. Laura 2, Jonathan 2


Round 3:

Did Jonathan Groff  invite me to his high school graduation? No!!! Laura 3, Jonathan 2

Does Laura have a different grandmother than me for variety’s sake? No. Laura 3, Jonathan 3

giant pretzel

Round 4:

Did Jonathan ever get caught in a giant pretzel and pretend he wasn’t caught but just hanging out, even posing for a picture and smiling, when in fact he was quite miserably and inextricably caught in a giant pretzel? No, he hasn’t. Jonathan 4, Laura 3

Does Jonathan have some friends? Maybe. But without a t-shirt to prove it we don’t know for sure. Laura 4, Jonathan 4



Crap, the score is even. Let’s go to the tie-breaker round:


Looking at Jonathan and Laura side-by-side we see that Laura is on the outside of the picture and Jonathan is in the middle. Jonathan is wearing a red shirt while Laura is wearing some sort of athletic jacket and sunglasses. We get a good look at Jonathan’s hands while we don’t even know for sure if Laura has hands….Jonathan has very voluminous tousled hair while Laura appears to have brushed her hair just that morning….Eff… the judges can’t really award points based on this picture.

So Laura has four points and Jonathan has four points. Well, gee, that was a big waste of time.  And NOT VERY GRECIAN!!

I’m just going to have to make an executive decision.

And that decision is….tick tock tick tock….that decision is….pause for suspense…that decision is….could someone please bring me a glass of water?….that decision is….no ice! no ice!…that decision is…let me just slake my thirst a minute…that decision is….ahhhhh refreshing…that decision is….who ate the last of the donuts?….that decision is….what do you mean nobody bought donuts?…that decision is…


Because I already interviewed her.

So here we go to Elmwood Park Zoo.


I visited the zoo with Laura last summer, before she joined the ranks of their unpaid employees. I remember we fed food pellets to goats out of ice cream cones. It was a bit of a racket because you had to pay 25 cents for a coneful of vending machine feed. But not as much of a racket as the Ms. Pacman machine at La Michoacana Paleteria that has a broken joystick but will still dispose of your quarters (read about it in my upcoming paleteria guide in the Weekly Alibi!). Also not as much of a racket as those spiral money funnels at the mall or those coin operated binoculars at overlooks.

The last one in particular makes me feel really bad inside about capitalist America.

But I like Elmwood Park Zoo. It’s a modest, leafy little zoo, full of humble, jolly animals like prairie dogs and armadillos. Except for this bald eagle who comes off as very arrogant and judgmental. So let’s visit! On a virtual tour! With my cousin Laura! Who works there as an intern!


So here we go, doooo deee dooooo, let’s buy an ice cream sandwich first. We can go halvsies!

Ice_cream_sandwich_(1)Don’t eat it yet! Wait for it to soften up. Geez! Now let’s ask Laura some questions.

So what’s the most awesome thing about working at the zoo?

Laura: Ummm I get a discount in the store. I bought a hat. It says Elmwood Park Zoo.

That’s nice. Hey, look, what’s that thing?


Laura: That’s a hedgehog.

He’s just sitting there in a field of white space not doing anything.

Laura: Yeah, hedgehogs are really cute–they have really cute faces–but they are kind of boring. They don’t really do anything and I don’t think they’d be a fun pet because you need gloves to touch them.

Would a cheaper pet that does the same thing be a cactus?

Laura: Yes.

Oh look, now he’s resting his face on a branch. That’s kind of interesting.

Laura: Not really though.


Yeah, not really. Do hedgehogs do anything fun?

Laura: Sometimes hedgehogs will lick your glove when you hold them.

I see. Hey! I don’t like the way he’s looking at my ice cream sandwich!


Laura: Don’t worry. He’s really slow. You will see him coming.

That’s disillusioning because Sonic the Hedgehog was so fast. Like, mental fast.

Laura: Yeah, I know.

Um, I’m running out of hedgehog questions.

Laura: Why don’t you ask me if hedgehogs carries any infectious diseases or runs wild in Europe.

Okay. Do hedgehogs carry any breakfast diseases or rum rye in Europe?

Laura: What? No, Not breakfast diseases, infectious diseases. Do they have infectious diseases and run wild in Europe.

It sounded like you said breakfast diseases.

Laura: Breakfast diseases doesn’t make sense.

Maybe you should just ask yourself questions.

Laura: Maybe I should. Laura, do hedgehogs run free in the Europe?

Laura:Yes they do, in Europe, they’re as big as dinner plates and they run freely like squirrels.

You mean like in the Netherlands, that sounds like something that would happen in the Netherlands.

Laura: Laura, do hedgehogs carry any infections diseases?

Laura: Yes, they carry salmonella. That’s why they’re illegal in the state of Pennsylvania.

Do you believe something so boring as hedgehogs should be illegal? Usually only fun things are illegal. It seems backwards that eating raw cookie dough is legal and having hedgehogs as a pet is not. Because they both can carry salmonella.

Laura: That’s true. Hey Laura, is there anything you would like to tell us about their quills, as compared to a porcupines quills?

Laura: Porcupine quills shoot out. They can stick into you. Hedgehog quills don’t come off. Look! Now he moved his face off the log and is shuffling slowly across some green fabric. If you want to know more about hedgehogs, you should watch this funny video! 


 Okay I’ll get right on that. Oh hey, there’s another thing over there. What is it?


Laura: That’s a chinchilla. We have two chinchillas, Machu and Picchu. Chinchilllas are really really soft. They have 500 hairs for every one hair we have. Because of that, people kill them a lot in the wild for their fur.
That seems wrong to kills something just because it’s soft and you want to pet it forever.

Laura: The only kids allowed to pet them are special needs kids. I’m allowed to touch it.

Do you think special needs kids really just especially need to touch a chinchilla? Like maybe that’s really all they ever needed.
Laura: I don’t know about that, but they’re really soft.
Can I touch it?
Laura: Are you a special needs child?
No, not really. Look! Now he’s smaller and drinking from a bottle!
Laura: He’s a baby.
What types of mountain ranges are chinchillas from, specifically?
Laura: They’re originally from the Andes mountains. But they’re almost extinct in the wild.
That’s too bad. Hey. Question. if you were a Harlem gangster drug dealer and all of the other dealers were wearing mink coats, but you wanted to stand out, would you wear a floor-length $100,000 chinchilla coat to an Ali-Frazier fight and draw attention to yourself from the feds because of your big, super soft coat–attention which would eventually lead to your arrest and downfall?

Laura: Yes. Because even after I get arrested people will know me as the girl with the awesome and expensive chinchilla coat.

Look now they’re wearing party hats!

And searching for things on Google.
Laura: Yeah, chinchillas aren’t boring like hedgehogs. They can jump about two feet and they have a really good memory, so they remember all of the jumps they make. After making a jump once, they don’t look anymore, they just jump around and know where they are. Also they have really long whiskers and use those whiskers to figure out if they can fit through gaps in rocks. If their whiskers brush the side of the opening they don’t go in.
That’s nice.
Laura: Because they have so much hair they can’t get wet. So they take baths with dust to get pieces of dirt out. We have these cheeseball containers that we put them in and give them dirt baths….are you listening to me?
No, I’m eating this ice cream sandwich.
Laura: I was saying that chinchillas bathe in dust. In the wild it’s really fine volcanic dust. Here’s a video!!
Hey, that was cute. Now let’s stop talking about chinchillas and start talking about that little girl at zoo camp who would raise her hand every time you brought out an animal and scream WHY IS IT SO CUTE???!!!!
Laura: Yeah, she did.
How did you respond?
Laura: I’d say, “It sure is cute, isn’t it?”
 Do you want to be a zookeeper when you grow up?
Laura: I think I’d really like to work at animals, but I don’t know if I want to do this job because they don’t make very much money. Unless I’d marry rich and then I guess it would be okay. Also the zookeeper interns get really dirty.
How do they get so dirty?
Laura: Cleaning out the eagle yard, it’s a very swampy area. They come out covered head-to-toe in mud.
Look it’s a great horned owl! Flying right at us!
Laura: We didn’t hear him because of his feathers are rounded at the tip.
He took my ice cream sandwich!
Ice_cream_sandwich_(1)Laura: Yeah! He has very long talons, his talons are the size of a small bear’s claws.
That seems excessive and demeaning to people who have food snatched from their hands because they couldn’t hear him coming.

Laura: Owls have humongous eyes but they can’t move them so he has to move his head, he can turn his head 280 degrees.

Look it’s autumn and he’s sitting in some leaves!

great horned owl in colorful fall leaves

Laura: If it’s autumn, then it’s time for me to go back to college.

That was the longest visit to the zoo ever. Time passed really quickly because I was learning so much and having so much fun. Except for when we were looking at the hedgehog and when the owl mugged me.

Laura: Which really only leaves the time we spent with the chinchilla.

Yeah, that was so much fun it seemed to last for months.

Laura: Well, thanks for coming on the tour. We should be leaving now.

Goodbye Elmwood Park. Goodbye whimsical, and bland and merciless creatures. Goodbye Laura. Goodbye summer. Goodbye youth. Goodbye ice cream sandwich.


And that concludes our tour! Come back next week for a much shorter blog where we don’t go anywhere and don’t learn nearly as much, but are also safe from the pain of disillusionment and owl crime.


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