EXCEPT FOR A YOUTHFUL HAYRIDE celebration and the year I threw my own surprise party, my birthdays have been less than memorable. Which is why this year, I hit the road. Never having spent more than 24 hours at a time in the nation’s fourth largest city, I thought that my twenty-second birthday was as good a time as any to see Houston—and find out what all the hoopla is about. I had heard about the fabulous restaurants, the incredible shopping, and the fast nightlife. But I was looking for more than that. I wanted to know what Houston had to offer a specialized audience that included myself: the animal lover.

My loyal and patient boyfriend, John, agreed to be my traveling companion, and together we were Houston-bound. My goal was animals. His goal was eating good food and avoiding a shopping trip to the Galleria, from which he feared we might never emerge. (Shopping didn’t make the agenda.) We arrived in the late afternoon, after a mildly traumatic experience on the tollway (if there was a sign stating the fee, we didn’t see it). We got settled in our hotel room and then hit the streets to scope out the neighborhood for restaurants, most of which, we discovered, were either African, Vietnamese, or Middle Eastern. Not being one for culinary adventure, I was ready to head elsewhere for more mainstream options, but John convinced me to give a small, colorful restaurant a chance. And what do you know? Chez Mame, specializing in food from the Republic of Senegal (a country in Africa), turned out to be a nice surprise. For a reasonable price, we noshed on ample servings of lamb and rice that went down well with a complimentary mango juice drink. We left feeling incredibly satisfied.

Bright and early the next morning, John and I sang happy birthday to me and made our way to the Reliant Center (next to the Reliant Astrodome) for the Reliant Park World Series of Dog Shows. This famous four-day competition is part beauty contest and part sporting event and is a must-see for both dog lovers and people-watchers. We had an hour or so before any competition got started, so we made the rounds in the vendor section. I was nearly coaxed by an eager merchant to buy a bronze mold of a Shetland sheepdog and contemplated the necessity of a rhinestone leash or leopard-print bed. I also met a rescued greyhound, a police dog, and a Seeing Eye dog that proudly showed me and anyone else who would watch that it could carry a leash. We had a really strange encounter with a Pomeranian that was dressed in a glittery jacket and a doggie-size sombrero and just happened to be riding in a remote control car that zoomed down the vendor aisles under the guidance of its highly amused owner. The kids loved this dog and its antics, but like most of the other adults, John and I just stared, not entirely sure what to say or think.

After escaping the vendors free of purchase, we made our way to the back of the building, where countless dogs were being groomed and prepped by owners, breeders, and handlers. This was the first day of competition, which would end in one dog being named Best in Show. Truly, this was a lesson in how dogs and people choose one another. Since most of the folks seemed a little too preoccupied to deal with endless questions or people asking to pet the dogs, we just watched and waited for them to talk to us. Often, we found that the temperament of the dog and the attitude of the owner were one in the same. Those handling basset hounds, Scottish terriers, German wirehaired pointers, and golden retrievers were generally friendly and open to questions. The Cardigan Welsh corgi owners in one section welcomed anyone who wanted to chat. Those with a poodle or a Pekingese, however, were more likely to either ignore observers or give them looks of frustrated annoyance.

While checking out a group of golden retrievers waiting to be groomed, I noticed one lone dog. Unlike its comrades, this dog was not barking, scratching, sleeping, or wagging; it stood like a statue, as if already before the judge. In its mouth was a giant pink teddy bear about three times the size of its head. I couldn’t help but wonder if the toy was part of some owner-dog deal. I’ll never forget that image.

Many of the dogs present at the four-day show were not being shown until the next day, so we picked out the breeds we liked best and went to watch them walk the ring at their designated times. Despite what you may think, a breed competition is not just ten or so dogs of the same breed walking in a circle. There are many different specialty competitions within breeds depending on age and experience. At one point, we wandered over to the agility trials to watch pups jump, tunnel, and yap happily under a judge’s eye. I really enjoyed watching the shelties and the Australian cattle dogs battle it out in the medium-sized dog trials, but after twenty minutes, I left in disgrace. Apparently, no flash photography was allowed (although there was no sign saying so). After a judge reprimanded me in front of a great deal of people, I left to see the basset hounds, a breed that didn’t mind my automatic flash.

Somewhere between the basset hounds and the Great Danes, we spotted the dog that might well have been the big celebrity of the show. John saw a man holding a Pekingese and immediately recognized them as competitors we had seen only days before on a televised dog show. I stood in line to have my picture taken with this canine—apparently one of the big up-and-comers—that resembled a longhaired caterpillar. Amazingly, I felt giddy and nervous. Only a dog show could inspire such emotions.

After hours of observing, petting, and taking snapshots, we headed for the door, never realizing a dog show could be so exhausting. As we left, that Pomeranian, this time clad in a silver space outfit and black sunglasses, zoomed by on the same little car. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was missing out on an upcoming dress-up contest. That night we dined on lobster Alfredo at a small Italian restaurant near the hotel. Gelato made a great substitute for birthday cake.

The next morning we were tempted to go back to the dog show, where many more breeds would be stepping out that day, but my agenda also included less domesticated animals, so it was off to the Houston Zoo. Our first stop was to see the sea lions being fed, but unfortunately, we missed the demos. Then it was off to the reptile house. I will admit the place was not only cool on a hot day but populated with a wide variety of creatures—the white alligator was especially neat. I was surprised to see so many reptiles actually active and moving (maybe it was the time of day—mid-morning). The children and men inside the building seemed thrilled, and I suppose if one had to spend time in a house of slithery reptiles, the Houston Zoo proved to be a good place to do it.

From there, we went to see the big cats. Unfortunately, many of these gorgeous animals were not nearly as active as the snakes. While watching the tigers sleep, I could not help but let my imagination run wild. These cats were known to drag men to their death, and it seemed to me that if they wanted, it wouldn’t be too difficult for them to get over that concrete barrier. However, they looked pretty sweet snuggled together asleep in the shade of a tree.

The monkeys had no problem beating out the snakes when it came to a high level of activity. We watched one small monkey enjoy catching flies and screeching at squirrels. Some of the monkey domains were close to the pedestrian walkway, which made for a few interesting encounters. One young monkey scrambled away from its parents, climbed the wiring to eat leaves, and stared at us, as if we were the show.

Unfortunately, it began to get extremely hot, so we whisked through staples like the giraffes on our way out. We did stop to observe one pleasant scene: The zookeepers in the elephant den had coaxed three pachyderms into an elephant-size kiddie pool, where the creatures took turns fighting over apples and being sprayed with a water hose. It was a pleasant way to end our trip.