Here’s a fun fact about my mother-in-law that I’m going to wager you didn’t already know: The lady fuckin’ loves the zoo.
Seriously. You kidnap some animals from their natural habitat and set ‘em up in some bizarrely named enclosure like “Tiger Mountain” or “Alligator Coffee Shop” that seems like a cruel mockery of the place from whence they came, and she’s good to go. For like five hours solid.
Before this past weekend, the last time I was at a zoo was in Berlin in 2007. I just happened to be there on a press trip—something I cannot imagine I will ever be on again unless I’m the one coordinating and funding the whole thing—when the baby polar bear Knut was stealing the hearts of the media and thus the world, and I decided to go see for myself. Standing on a line longer than that of any rollercoaster I’d ever been on to watch for a couple minutes while the young eisbär gnawed on its caretaker’s arm, I’d already made my way past downtrodden flamingos, depressed grizzlies and a couple of the most miserable gorillas you could ever want to see. The zoo, in short, was a real downer.
That assessment held up as I traipsed around the Bronx Zoo this past Sunday, totally unaware of a van that had overturned from the Bronx River Parkway on the other side of the grounds, killing all seven passengers including three children. The impetus behind the family outing was meeting up with my wife’s sister, her wife and their two kids, aged four years and three months, respectively. If I’m honest, it was mostly the kids that got me off the couch and away from an afternoon that I would otherwise have spent reediting the next issue of our drunken sister publication, New Jersey Beers & Bars—I’ve come to think of it as an uncompensated side-project; volunteer work for some greater good that has yet to reveal itself—reading for pleasure (you’ll note the distinction) and listening to records, but it’s moot. Point is I went to the zoo. Even the younglings became incidental to that.
That’s because even at the Bronx Zoo, which to hear my mother-in-law tell it is one of the nicest zoos in the world, the animals were pretty fucking dismayed at their existence. I saw two rhinos kept in what was basically a walled-off area next to “Guest Services” that was about as big as a front yard. Yes, I’m sure they feel like that accurately recreates the African savannah, now can we please go mock the sea lions who are forced to pathetically circle the same tank for, I don’t know, ever? That’s got to be the same as living in the open ocean, right?
Perhaps it’s unfair to ascribe human emotions and reasoning to animals without the same kind of consciousness, but one look at those birds in their weird, windowed living space and it was pretty clear they knew something about the situation was terrible.
Do I really need to see these creatures in the flesh to know they exist? Isn’t that what the Planet Earth tv series was for? It looked better in HD anyway, and I didn’t have to feel guilty for being a member of my species to watch it, which certainly would’ve been an improvement on my zoo trip. I wanted to apologize to every alligator I saw, and to the giraffes and ostriches, who shared a plot of land like it was rent-controlled. Really, if you ever feel like humanity is on the right track or that people have “come a long way” since our primitive ancestors started beating each other to death with animal bones, just take an afternoon and go to the zoo.
Not only will you understand the willful blind eye that gets turned to cruelty seven days a week, but you’ll also have a chance to check out some of the rawest familial contempt you’ll ever see. Bored fathers regretting every decision they ever made that brought them to this point. Mothers so disappointed in everything around them they have no choice but to lash out. Children who won’t even know why they’re so angry until a therapist helps them figure it out years later (in the best cases) as they switch roles to perpetuate the cycle. It was more than enough to make me wish they had a human exhibition, but then, they pretty much did anyway.
Would be no more or less than Homo sapiens deserve, and though the cynic in me says probably not, the naïve, hopeful part thinks maybe that might be enough to actually get someone to shut these places down, because as much as they fill them with anti-poaching propaganda and “conservationalist” hoo-ha, the zoo is no better. A human need to separate from and dominate nature playing out in vicious form.