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The zoo: It's real, it works

It was late in the afternoon, the sun was high, and Lowry Park Zoo was preparing to close. Because nearly everybody else was at work or school or on his way home from one or the other, the animals had the zoo almost to themselves.

Without human eyes upon them, they could act without self-consciousness or fear.

The roseate spoonbills stretched their wings and showed off a pink like the pink you find on the curved inside of a seashell.

Elsewhere, a dust cloud rose up every time one of the bisons rolled over. Two bald eagles stared from a wooden perch with eyes more intelligent than those you see on some people in three-piece suits.

Around a bend, a rhino dipped his magnificently ugly self into a deep green pool. A goose quacked at the rhino's leathery backside as it disappeared into the water.

Maybe you can also see this at Busch Gardens or Disney World. I don't know. I have never been to those spots, haven't taken my out-of-town relatives or touring friends.

In this land where the big tourist attraction has about the same draw as religion, my position is easily assailed. My smarts are almost in question for rebelling at those prepackaged universes of amusement.

So be it. I have no need of the sign seen last week in a Brandon restaurant not far from the junction of Interstate 4 and Interstate 75. Busch Gardens was to the west on the interstate, the handmade sign said because the restaurant help was tired of saying so to the travelers who stopped to eat and ask. Disney World was to the east.

These days it costs $31 to go there. Busch Gardens is a relative bargain at $23.95. Lowry Park is one-sixth of that, a democratic four bucks.

But you don't get the rides or the restaurants, and the field of dreams is, by comparison to those other places, postage stamp-sized.

No, you don't get a universe of pleasure to fray your nerves and overwhelm your kids. You do get a public place in Tampa that works.

Like a half-dozen other institutions born or reborn in the last 10 years, the zoo has a new, improved self. Rebuilt in the mid-'80s, it reopened two and a half years ago. Nearly a million and a half people have seen it since.

Meantime, the new Convention Center opened last week, and the people who say it is too small and needs a hotel were still saying the place, pretty though it is, is too small and needs a hotel.

The Performing Arts Center, new management notwithstanding, keeps scrambling for audiences. The orchestra always needs money, and the Tampa Ballet went belly-up. Until Curtis Hixon Hall is torn down, you'll need a map to find the Tampa Museum.

And the Florida Aquarium, also planned for downtown, is supposed to be part of this magic mix, but it is still a dream of so many fish in somebody's head.

The zoo is not part of this downtown establishment of civic pleasures, as it is apart from that manufactured environment of theme parks. The zoo is north of Seminole Heights, but still in the city. The trees cast great shadows, and the wooden walkways take you past the pacing wolves or the dozing tiger, so you wouldn't know you are just a hop from the highway.

Heaven, as far as I can tell, must be like the aviary, tented with metal netting and alive with the whoosh and music of odd birds. As I was about to leave, a pair of white-crested laughing thrushes stood on their stick legs, nodded toward each other with their beaks as if they were about to do a minuet across the pavement.

Instead, they broke into a whistle, perhaps because one of their keepers was bringing dinner in a tin bowl or, I would prefer to think, because they were just happy.