I love animals, mammals mostly. My first tattoo just had to be a fur-bearer like me. (It is, and I’ve never seen my mammal on anyone else.) When I leave the TV showing a nature program on Animal Planet or Discovery (or Disney’s excellent Planet Earth series) I don’t feel that “counts” as those bad hours of TV that corrupt our kids’ brains.

So Dar has been getting animal indoctrination, and not only from me, but also 100 books, 1000 Kaufman cards, and at least 10 Beatles songs. Is any of it getting through? We went to Safari West over the weekend, partly to find out.

Wifey and I liked the idea of a safari for Dar, not just to see if he’d notice any of nature’s creatures, but also because during the safari portion he’d be 1) in a car, where movement often calms him, 2) outside (more than most cars), where his screams aren’t as inappropriate as usual.

Safari West, located halfway between Santa Rosa and Calistoga, runs a professional operation and they should – they’re more expensive than the San Diego Zoo, and you’re not exactly getting that. But they probably don’t even get one-tenth of the SDZ’s visitors, and animal husbandry is expensive. (You should see the wifery.)

So our little family piles into the back seat of the big safari truck. The moment the truck takes its first lurch forward, R flies off the seat into the well between us and the next seat, and freaks out though he isn’t hurt. He’s still so small! For the rest of the trip, R needs to be in my lap, and is, while Dar stays next to Mom. In such circumstances, it’s very easy to fall into asking R “what is that?” And he answers, “giraffe,” “rhino,” “zebra” when appropriate. And then that naturally leads into discussions about the length and color of giraffe tongues, the hair-like properties of rhino horns, the fingerprint-level distinctive stripe patterns on zebras, what they eat, where they go to get water, which parts of Africa they’re from, when they breed, how they get along with each other, et cetera (okay, the guide may have helped us with some of her knowledge).

If there’s a Dad good enough to chat with his neuro-typical son about all this while always remembering to say to his not-so-neuro-typical son, “Hey, what do you think?” and “Hey, did you notice that?”, knowing that all he’ll get is a blank wall – well, I’m not that Dad. Minutes of various animalia go by, and I forget to directly address Dar. Like any amateur biologist, I hope he absorbs some things through osmosis. But who knows.

As we drive within feet of elands, buffaloes, wildebeests, white antelopes, and the rest, Dar looks at the animals the same way he looks at most things in the house – with minimal interest that constantly threatens to veer into disinterest. Neither he nor his brother are really the reach-out-and-touch type, even if Safari West had encouraged that (they don’t). But Dar barely cracks a smile during a two-hour wildlife drive. Hey, it’s better than screaming, although as the tour winds down he treats us to a few of those as well.

dar safari1

The therapists make a big deal about us trying new things – this has been mentioned often enough that I sometimes wonder if half of their clients remain housebound most of the time. Certainly we try. Certainly we have no idea if it has any effect. Certainly I’d love, in ten years, to read Dar’s Carly Fleischmann-like account of how great all these safari-like experiences were. Certainly I’m not expecting that.

Safari West also has a walking portion, where we see flamingos, lemurs, an aviary full of exotic birds, cheetahs, capuchin monkeys, a porcupine, and a few other fascinating creatures. Does Dar notice any of them? Maybe. His brother R insists not only on binoculars (we bought him kid binocs but he insists on using our adult ones) but also on positioning them the wrong way. I used to think that was a mistake (our first few days in Utah, six weeks ago), but I’ve now come to the conclusion that he’s intentionally “capturing” the animals in his own way, making them smaller and more contained. I wish Dar would have even that much of a relationship, perhaps a laugh at something a monkey does, or being startled by the hiss of a bobcat. It would be great if he was particularly excited by even one; we could buy stuffed-animal versions and play “pretend” games or have him draw it or whatever. It may be that all of these shapes are merely a blur to him, or that they don’t register as part of his world.

Dar’s not blind, he’s not deaf; these have been tested. In his pre-diagnosis days, I would take him to the local dog park as part of walking my dog, Mosley; Dar would shudder if a strange dog approached him. The dog people would say “You’re doing the right thing, your son is going to be so accustomed to dogs!” I’m not sure that ever happened. About a year ago, he was interested in Mosley for about a month – which is about how long he stays interested in anything, just long enough for us to buy our own copy and then he dismisses said thing. In the case of Mosley I should be grateful he wasn’t pulling his tail, but instead just touching him to see what Mosley would do. Mosley didn’t do much. I haven’t seen Dar approach Mosley in 2015, even though Mosley is this big chocolate lab sitting in the middle of the living room.

I suppose the only thing to do with Dar and animals is just keep trying. When thinking about my own attraction to animals, I think it’s partly feeling there must be more to life and Earth than just humanity, thinking that there are rules to nature and existence that we’ll never understand. Perhaps the same is true of Dar; perhaps he’s simply part of that mysterious natural world. Perhaps we’re just going to have a safari-animal/safari-visitor relationship all our lives. But I’m not yet convinced he really wants that and I know I don’t want that. I’m the reach-out-and-touch type.