This past summer, I visited the Woodland Park Zoo for the first time. It’s a good zoo: the animals have plenty of room, look healthy, and even better, they offer animal interaction where you can feed elephants and giraffes. I love getting close to animals and seeing the texture of their skin, feel the whooshes of their breath, watch their eyelashes flutter, their lips quiver toward a treat. I am in awe of their presence, their majesty. I love the noises they make, from the Jurassic Park screech of a Japanese crane to the rumble of a tiger. I love seeing the sun glint off their fur, watching their muscles rippling under their skin, and acclimating my eyes to the nocturnal areas to watch a bat spread its wings.
I know you’re not supposed to like zoos if you profess to love animals. Or circuses. Or basically any animal-based entertainment. And I do understand that. I don’t want animals to be tortured for my entertainment, and there are examples of all of these things that show that some humans are incredibly cruel, or stupid, or both. But I also believe that it’s possible for zoos to be run well, for the animals to be treated with exemplary care, and for the displays themselves to be educational and spark a desire in humans to love and protect the animals and habitats we otherwise so readily destroy. That the physical reality of the animal can forge a connection that a photograph in a book or on a screen cannot.
I was, and remain, deeply upset about the killing of Marius the giraffe in the Copenhagen Zoo. He was still a baby and was yet deemed ‘surplus’ and as such was slaughtered and fed to the lions. He wasn’t so extraneous when he was still small and could bring in tourist money, but now that he was older and no longer a draw, suddenly his dismemberment could be “an educational experience”. If the role of zoos is to protect these animals, it makes no sense to kill one and call it education. The zoo claims that they needed to kill him to combat inbreeding, but a simple castration could have solved that issue and he could have lived a long and healthy life. Other zoos offered to take him in. Private buyers offered to take him off of the Copenhagen Zoo’s hands. But instead of protecting his life, they made a glorified sideshow out of his death.
I realized that as I came across these photos, I couldn’t just post them now in light of Marius’ needless death without commenting on my participation in giraffe tourism. I’m trying to be more vigilant about which businesses get my dollars when animals are involved. Sometimes I make the right choices, and sometimes I make wrong ones; I hope I make the right choices more often than not.
One of the first places we visited in the zoo was the insect area, a place which I find both fascinating and repellent. I’m often simultaneously filled with the urge to go “ooooh” and “ewww” at the same time, finding myself flailing when I feel something imaginary skitter over my neck and practically moaning in despair when I see that they keep one of their spiders out in the open, saying that she “has no reason to go anywhere”. Oh yeah? Someday she might find a reason. Someday when I’m near the exhibit. I don’t want to be involved in any sort of spider-related incident.
Sometime after lunch, our group split up–most everyone wanted to see the educational display of a bear going after a picnic basket’s contents because they were pretty sure it was going to be total carnage (you know, in an educational fashion), but I felt strongly that if I didn’t feed an elephant a leafy branch when given the opportunity that I might die. We knew that the animal interactions were an extra fee, but we didn’t know that this extra fee was cash only, resulting in a scramble through the park, looking for an ATM.
It was totally worth it. Aaagh just looking at these pictures makes me want to give this elephant forehead kisses (I am not suited to survival in the wild, being cared for by a nanny society has worked out in my favor) but I had to settle for feeding it a shoot from a what was essentially a magic wand for elephant treats.
After we waited in line to meet the elephant, we waited in line to meet and feed some giraffes, because this zoo understands the importance of feeding a hungry giraffe, unlike the Racine Zoo. They allow you to feed the giraffes directly from your hand, but warn you that as much as you might like to pet them, they do not want to be petted. It took an extraordinary amount of willpower on my part to not attempt to touch a giraffe, but I managed to follow instructions, unlike one of the kids in our group. He had initially impressed the zookeeper with his knowledge and questions, but tried to feed the giraffe with one hand and pet it with the other on the side the zookeeper couldn’t see. I did find it immensely gratifying to watch the giraffe’s head snap back and have her give the kid a look like “You, sir, have violated our feeding agreement and I am extraordinarily disappointed in you,” mainly because that look was not directed at me. We also made certain to take some time to see the baby sloth bears, and we were rewarded with sloth bear roughhousing. Of course, I can’t see two adolescents fighting without immediately thinking of Arrested Development, so I give you BOYFIGHTS: Sloth Bears.