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Personal Essay: “Zoo Connections”

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I huddle close to the thick plate glass of the dolphins’ watery domain, when suddenly one of them stops in their circuit of the observable area of the enclosure to study us humans. As we study the dolphin, it looks back at us, keeping its eyes trained on our every movement, following us closely as we move off to the side.

Though I don’t support showcasing marine mammals in zoos like this, even if their enclosures are large and they receive plenty of stimulation by their human caretakers, I can’t felt but feel affected by this obvious display of intelligence by the dolphin. My breath catches and I feel my heart speed up slightly. On the one hand I might have received another reason to support those who want marine mammals to remain in their natural ocean habitat, but I am also affected on a deeper, spiritual level by this brief eye contact with another species who I know possesses a great intelligence and awareness about the world around them. By looking into its eyes, not only have our gazes met, but also our souls.

On this sunny day in late August, a day which speaks of a summer that seems like it will last forever, I am treated to multiple experiences like this. With fewer visitors, it seems the playing field between the observer and the observed has been leveled. As the animals have fewer humans to keep track of, suddenly they are able to closely observe us, just like we observe them. And time and time again I find myself connecting with them.

Like by the primate exhibit, where gorillas and the chimpanzee group live as neighbors. I observe how the mother gorilla in the small family group often turns away from her unruly youngest child to give us a close and intense stare. Perhaps she includes us in some way in her own family group, with the only difference that we can move further away and disappear. Suddenly I am not surprised by reports of gorillas flinging objects at human observers. Perhaps they were just trying to scold their human cousins, for some behavior they found unacceptable. When she finally grows bored of observing us she moves a bit away to labor with a grassy corner, pulling away tufts of grass and sort it into neat piles. After a while her youngest son approaches her and much like a human child tries to emulate his mother in what she is doing, he begins to pick at the grass as well. It must be a welcome break between his temper tantrums today, when he attempts to wrestle his older and much larger brother to the ground, then pounds on one of the huts in the outdoors enclosure.

Is this not so much like us, like the kind of behavior in any family with small children and older siblings? The gorillas are alike both in how they behave and also how they observe their surroundings, with a knowing intelligence. Yet in Africa gorillas are a hunted species, critically endangered in the wild. Is this really the proper way to treat a species we have so much in common with?

And even with other species, further removed from our family tree we can recognize a part of ourselves.

I stood for a long time, observing the brand new elephant calf as he tried to escape the little playpen the mother and her best friend had made of their large legs, while they both ate their lunch. Eventually he managed to figure out how to walk around the pillar-like legs and raising his tiny trunk he made a break for it, as fast as his little legs could carry him, triumph evident in his stature and the way he carried himself. Yet, he did not make it very far before the two females, as one, turned around in a surprisingly elegant dance formation and cut him off with a tired expression on their grey, furrowed brows. How many have not had a similar experience, babysitting a child, either our own or that of a friend or relative? How can you forget the way you always had to keep one eye on them, yet still try to focus on any task you had to perform at the same time?

While stopping by the area devoted to the snow leopards it was easy to imagine that the great Himalayan feline, at first sleeping close to the observation glass, heard us as we complimented its wonderful fur and bushy tail, as it slowly got up, took a few steps, then sat down to pose with a dignified look on its face. The large cat remained like that for long enough that I could take a number of photos and only when I moved away did he decide he was bored of sitting so still and continued further down the cliffs in his large enclosure. And not before our eyes could meet and I could gaze into those murky grey eyes.

Quite regularly voices are raised that condemn the very idea of zoological parks, that it’s cruel to keep animals caged up and that we are better off letting them all roam free.

Though it is true that not all animals bred in zoos for conservation purposes can eventually be let out to join their brethren in the wild, I think I fully understand now the other reason to keep and maintain our zoological parks: For educational purposes.

Because when you can stare into the very soul of another animal as I did on that day. As I looked into the eyes of dolphin, gorilla, snow leopard, tiger and bear, how could I not see that they, just like me have the same kind of life force, soul if you will, as I have inside me. As I observed their behavior, as close to wild, natural behavior as possible, from the great care taken by the staff of the zoo, I could see how close they were to me, how we all possess the same potential to love and care for each other, to observe our surroundings and be fascinated by what we see, to explore and investigate and to ability to know when you are looking into the eyes of something with an intelligence that matches yours.

I can still remember the brown bear on his cliff, obviously posing for anyone that walked past. As I turned my back, he seemed to deflate a little, yet when I turned back to look at him, he seemed to raise his head up high, as if he was telling me “Look at me, am I not the strongest, best, most powerful bear you have ever seen? Am I not better than the average bear?”

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Now that I think about it, wasn’t it some cartoon bear that said something like that?

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