The wise scholars Simon and Garfunkel once stated that it’s all happening at the zoo. At the risk of animal rights organizations tossing fake blood on my front door, I rather like zoos. I spent many a childhood summer at the Audubon Zoo in uptown New Orleans, sweating buckets as my siblings and I caravanned across the landscape, five little Lefante ducklings, sneakered feet pattering across the pavement and wooden bridges. In typical Louisiana fashion, the Audubon Zoo features a prominent swamp area that includes alligators, nutria, and recipes for how to cook both alligators and nutria. It’s not surprising that our zoo attracts people like the ones I heard during this last visit, with accents that sounded foreign even to my Southern-trained ears. “Well, shit now, look at that there rhino,” is, contrary to what you might think, an actual sentence that a person might say while observing the white rhino in its (un)natural habitat.
But I digress.
A voracious researcher in my youth (read: geeky bookworm), I participated in my library’s reading incentive program with the sort of dogged commitment that one might expect out of a competitive hot dog eater. I could be found anywhere with a book in hand: curled up in bed; reclined with my feet on the back of the couch; cross-legged on the backyard patio; sprawled across two kitchen chairs as my mom baked cookies. I read everything I could get my hands on so I could earn passes to go to the zoo with my disposable Kodak camera and snap pictures of alligators, white tigers, and orangutans.
It is my belief that none of us actually become adults. Rather, we simply morph into taller, curvier, legally-allowed-to-drink-alcoholic-beverage versions of our childhood selves. Some of us are taller than others (I am under no delusions and readily recognize that I am the size of a small hobbit), and some of us, well, we’re blessed with many a curve. I like cupcakes. My point, though, is that this is why, as I entered the zoo with my friends, t and W, I immediately took my digital camera from my bag and adjusted its settings for optimal animal photos. The Audubon Zoo of today is pretty different from the Audubon Zoo of my childhood. It, along with much of modern life, has become Disney-fied. Instead of starting your zoo journey in what everyone simply knows as The First Part, You Know, With The Bears and Stuff, you embark on a quest in the Asia Domain, a moniker etched on a wooden sign that’s meant to trick you into thinking you are a safari explorer. As a kid, it’s easy to buy into this; as an adult, it becomes uncomfortably apparent that these animals don’t enjoy the same amount of room they would in the actual wilderness.
“This zoo trip is starting off depressing,” t said. We were standing in front of the white tigers, both of whom lay on the dirt with their heads propped on their paws. Coming from a thirty-two year old vegetarian who grew up on a farm, this made me feel more than a little guilty for loving zoos.
“They’re well-fed,” W pointed out, though whether it was a serious counterpoint or an ironic statement, I couldn’t quite tell.
I answered with a vague, “Zoos are tricky things,” then snapped a close-up of the tigers. I find zoos much more ethically ambiguous than, say, a circus. The purpose of a circus, whether the animals are treated well or not, is entertainment. Zoos, in my mind, can be educational, especially since most kids don’t grow up with the opportunity to go on an African safari and see these creatures for themselves. It’s one thing to see photos of primates displayed on the pages of National Geographic; it’s another thing to watch a video of an ape on Animal Planet, swinging effortlessly from tree to tree until it’s time for a commercial break; and it is quite another to witness a baby orangutan swing from one rope to another, then pounce on a sleeping adult orangutan (which t and I decided, pretty arbitrarily, must be the papa) several times before giving up and returning–rope to pole to rope to ledge–into his mother’s arms. “Get a picture of this!” t said, and as I snapped the photo of mother and child I thought, Where else would a curious city kid see this? All of this?
We trekked through the reptile exhibit, where t told us a story about her father killing a rattlesnake; walked up Monkey Hill, which, I informed my friends, used to be nothing more than a grassy knoll and which has now been paved over on one side, dotted with brass figures of lions, and given a rope bridge for kids to cross; and made our way to the swamp exhibit, where I forced t to pose next to the sign that said “Cougar Exhibit,” then extolled the virtues of foxes as we watched two red foxes sleep, looking far more innocent than we all know those carnivorous creatures to be. As we watched zebras meander along the water, W talked about his friend who lived overseas and who wanted nothing more than to take a long, hot shower when he arrived home, leading to a discussion about water conservation and all the choices that we get to enjoy in America. It occurred to me, somewhere near the giraffes, that we weren’t just having a pleasant day at the zoo. We were having a pleasant day at the zoo where we were discussing our lives as well as, you know, global issues. Things that matter. It blew my mind, just a little bit, that this could happen in the same place where the three of us watched, not a little bit in awe, as an elephant pooped cantaloupe-sized feces into a blue wheelbarrow.
My own two beasts, a pair of cats named Rocky and Apollo, were waiting for me at home. While they purred at my feet, I sifted through the photos on my camera, deciding which to keep. One animal in particular struck me. It’s the one who always, every time, causes me the most discomfort. It’s hard to look into the eyes of something so like you. Once, when I was in college, a gorilla at the zoo–one much like this one staring at me through my digital camera window, perhaps even the same one–looked me square in the eye, I know he did, as if he was telling me to stop staring. Worse, I started to wonder if I was the one in the controlled environment, like maybe the joke was being played on us humans. Like maybe, just maybe, that gorilla was looking at me in my scarf and skinny jeans, thinking, “Well, shit, now look at that there hipster.”
Global issues, harsh judgments, elephants pooping in wheelbarrows. Simon and Garfunkel were right. It’s all happening at the zoo.