I lost my 4-year-old daughter at the zoo.
It was one of the only non-rainy days we had experienced this winter in the Pacific Northwest, so we all decided to go to the zoo. Of course everyone and their brother also had the same idea, so the place was, well, a zoo. It was crowded, but not chaotic, and we were all grateful for some fresh air, so it was shaping up to be a good afternoon.
While I tend to be an overly cautious parent, my husband lets the kids roam a bit more when we’re out and about. I was trying to take a note from his free-range parenting playbook and allow myself to relax. My kids always stayed near us, and there was no reason for me to have a panic attack every time they were out of my line of sight for a split second. They were fine, my husband assured me, so as the afternoon wore on I found myself enjoying the zoo myself instead of just growing weary from being a hovering watchdog.
As we headed into a cave-like structure so we could look at some animal, my daughter went ahead a few steps to get a better look. I watched as she squeezed past a group of people and around a slight bend in the path to get closer to the window. I couldn’t see her, but I knew where she was and I’d catch up to her as soon as the group of dawdlers in front of me moved on. Or so I thought.
A few seconds later, I heard her frantically cry, “Mommy! Daddy!” I pushed through the crowd and called for her, but I couldn’t see her. I went around the bend and again called for her and again didn’t see her, and worse, this time I didn’t hear her either. My husband told me to stay where I was with our son, and he went to look for her. On the outside, I tried to stay calm so our boy wouldn’t start freaking out, but on the inside I was a mess. Deep down, I knew she was fine, that she was safe, but when you don’t know for sure, when you can’t see your own kid, and the last thing you heard was their frightened voice, you cannot do anything but fear the worst.
It felt like years while I stood there with my son, my eyes permanently fixed on the direction my husband had gone. Finally, what was probably only a few few minutes after his departure, he came into my view holding my sad but relieved little girl. She had taken one of two paths when she went around the corner, the one that we weren’t on, and began running the wrong way, away from us instead of toward us. She was crying and kept telling me how scared she had been, as we hugged tightly.
It was only a couple of minutes, but my god, it was terrifying.
That afternoon, and many times since, my husband and I have talked to both of our kids about the proper protocol should we ever be separated again. In an instance when we’re in a public place like the zoo, they are to stay in one spot and call for us. My daughter went running when she couldn’t see us, and that’s how things got so bad so quickly. We told them they need to stay put, and we will find them. We’ve also had to talk about “stranger danger,” about looking for people in uniforms and asking them for help, and we’re going to have them wear a bracelet with our contact information should we get separated in the future.
She was fine less than an hour after the event, but I’m still rattled to this day. The whole ordeal makes me want to hold my kids’ hands every second we’re out of the house, but I know I can’t do that. I can’t physically restrain them forever. What I can do, though, is educate myself and them, and pray they make they right choices.