The shutdown and the “great good place”

Well, it happened. Minnesota’s governor and Legislature deadlocked over the state budget, time officially ran out at midnight, a government shutdown has taken effect, and I’m looking back at my partial day spent at the zoo yesterday — its last day open until further notice — without knowing when I’ll be allowed to go back. (A happy update: Two days later, a judge has ruled that the zoo may reopen right away, Sunday morning. Although it’s a state agency, 70 percent of its revenue comes from private sources like admissions and donations — enough to keep it afloat during the peak season.) A few core staffers were on the job during the two days of closure to care for the animals and keep the facility secure.

Being there on the last day pre-shutdown felt odd for another reason: It was about 50 degrees warmer than last Thursday, when temps hovered in the mid-50s and I shivered at the upper information booth with a zoo jacket buttoned up to my throat. But even in yesterday’s suffocating heat and humidity, I managed to spend an hour out at Grizzly Coast without melting, and here’s some of the cuteness I witnessed.

Volunteers are pretty sure this is Jasper, who likes to show off at the sea-otter viewing window (there’s some minor aggression among the three males, so we haven’t been seeing them all out together). Fellow volunteer Darlene and I ventured out into nature’s furnace after lunch; she bravely continued onward along the Northern Trail, while I settled into this shady cave and brought out the super-soft otter pelt for guests to touch. The hand in this photo belongs to fellow volunteer Ruth, who came along in time for an otter-training-and-enrichment session conducted by zookeepers. By then, I was ready to re-enter the wonderful world of air conditioning. But the bears were SO CLOSE, and so I wandered a little farther with Ruth instead, half-hoping to see something like this.

Sadie, the grizzly on the left, is our lone girl bear. I’ve seen her in the pool just once or twice in the three years she’s lived here, and I’ve never seen her roughhousing. But yesterday the heat drew her into the water, and it was a joy to watch her splashing around with Haines. Despite the fearsome fang near her eye at right, he seemed to play with Sadie so much more gently than he does with fellow boy bear Kenai.

I’ve been a little emotional about this shutdown; the political party-line divisions are scarily deep, and my husband (a state employee, but not for the zoo) is on indefinite layoff until this gets resolved. The threat of closure gave me a chance to ponder what makes the zoo so special to me; I love animals, of course, but my feelings for other zoos and aquariums are much more superficial. I thought of the zoo the first time I read about “third places” — happy hangouts and gathering spots beyond homes or workplaces, a concept explored in “The Great Good Place” by Ray Oldenburg. Volunteers have a unique relationship with the zoo as a third place: Unlike visitors and employees, we sidestep the issues of payment and necessity. Although we commit to 16 or 32 hours a month, give or take, on a particular day of the week, we can also pop in anytime, and although we follow a schedule on our chosen day, we range widely across the zoo, sampling everything in half-hour increments, conversing freely, bonding with guests and other volunteers, untethered from the worries and stresses that come with even the best “real” paying job (like the one I have the rest of the week). So while the government shutdown wears on, it’s good to know my favorite third place is still available to me.

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