The tornado siren erupted in an ear-shattering alarm, startling me and the black and the brown bears that were napping far up in trees, dangling precariously off limbs that were entirely too fragile for their size and weight. I looked around. The battleship gray sky didn’t look particularly threatening, and I didn’t detect an uptick in the wind. But thick trees blocked my line of sight for any scary funnels, and, well, what did I know about Midwestern tornados? I live in Brooklyn, New York (although, with undeniable climatic changes, that’s starting not to matter).
I looked around. None of the few people nearby seemed fazed by the blaring noise. Nor did the bears, although they did seem a little perturbed about having their slumber interrupted. Nevertheless, I had to ask anyway if I should be scurrying toward some shelter.
“No,” said the father of four. “Just a test. They do it on a regular basis.” And then he was off chasing after one of his toddlers who had broken free.
Reassured, I resumed my enjoyment of Topeka Zoo, one of the highlights of the city’s Gage Park. I was spending the entire day in one of Topeka’s largest parks. Opened in 1899 after the heirs of Guilford Gage — a Civil War veteran, brick-kiln businessman, real estate investor, and homebuilder — donated 80 acres of land, Gage Park has since doubled in size. Its 160 acres is irresistible to athletes, complete with softball and soccer fields, tennis and sand volleyball courts, an aquatic center with a 164’ swimming pool, and a two-mile fitness trail. An amphitheater and the Helen Hocker Theater draw performing arts lovers of all ages, and a bark park brings in pet owners and their best four-legged friends. Children will enjoy the discovery center, play areas, carousel, mini-train ride, and, of course, the zoo, where I was now returning my attention to the bears, who were settling back into their nap.
Opened in 1933, the Topeka Zoo is a medium-sized zoo, lovely and manageable, and it started things off perfectly by placing giraffes, my favorite animal, right at the entrance. That immediately put me in a good mood, elevated further by the fact that two reticulated giraffes, Hope and Konza, were born here, in 2011 and 2018. The zoo houses mammals, birds, amphibians, arthropods, and reptiles, including beautiful Sumatran tigers (and a couple of vigilant and adorable cubs), bobcats with alert eyes, very loud scarlet macaws, and the always entertaining lorikeets.
The zoo boasts one of the oldest indoor tropical rainforests in the United States as well as some very creative exhibits and touches. An African safari camp, Camp Cowabunga, complete with canvas chairs around a campfire, safari vehicles, and large tents with exhibits, explains the entire safari experience, from how these adventures not only help stem the declining populations of so many species to how they’re economically critical to a host of countries. A display about the destructiveness of the palm oil industry and the astounding variety of products that contain it (chocolate syrup, lipstick, canned soup, packaged bread, shampoo, laundry detergent, margarine, peanut butter, potato chips, soap, ketchup, mouthwash, and on and on) forces us to realize how our consumer purchases are directly contributing to climate change and deciding the fate of rain forests and orangutans, and, hopefully, reconsider our behavior. Not everything is so serious, of course. The approach path to the shark exhibit is stamped with “DUM DUM DUM DUM DUM” to conjure up all your fears from Jaws. And, back at Camp Cowabunga, a perfectly apposite sign explaining midden (“the result of territorial marking behavior, when a given species of animal repeatedly defecates or urinates in the same spot to establish a scent”) is attached to, naturally, the doors to the restrooms.
From the zoo, I headed over to the Von Rohr Victorian Garden and to Westlake, a placid body of water with footbridges long and short, and plenty of Canada geese and mallard ducks to keep things lively. It’s a pleasant walk to Doran Rock Garden, with a lovely pond and an explosion of tulips in the spring.
Adjacent to the rock garden, the Reinisch Rose Garden starts blooming into life in the spring. More than 5,500 roses of 350 varieties make this the most aromatic part of Gage Park, even well into the autumn. Established in 1932, the rose garden serves as a popular backdrop for wedding photos. One of 23 test gardens in the United States for hybridizers, the rose garden is the site of some substantial horticultural experimentation. But it’s also delightful to wend your way around pink, red, yellow, orange, peach, white, and magenta flowers, or to inhale their collective fragrance from a welcoming bench beside the reflecting pool surfaced with lily pads and alive with bright orange koi. It’s the perfect spot to end your day at Gage Park.