Monday, August 01, 2005

Zoo Time


This past Sunday afternoon, I visited the Bronx Zoo with a friend and his wife. 4 1/2 hours of animal observation should energize and excite someone so passionate about conservation and ethology, but I sat sapped in a diner that evening, absently watching traffic merge onto the expressway.

What is it about zoos that so depresses me? Although a strong case can be made that zoos are unethical, this high-minded charge doesn't unsettle me. In fact, animal care has improved at a remarkable rate. In the 19th century, the zoological garden didn't exist. Their forebears, private menageries assembled to display wealth and influence, and side-shows designed as profitable entertainment, generally provided the caged animals with only basic needs. Fortunately, as the study of natural history flowered, so too did the zoological garden. Early zoos served two purposes; they provided the public with entertaining education and scientists with first-hand access to exotic species. Thus, the groundwork was laid for influential conservation organizations like the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Certainly, I sometimes feel that zoo enclosures are too small, too dirty, too damp, or too dry but, as a general rule, the care received by contemporary zoo animals ranges from good to excellent. The attention-grabbing headlines aside, most zoo keepers are diligent workers and conscientious stewards. Furthermore, zoo signage has improved greatly in recent decades. At the Bronx Zoo, signs provide visitors with general species information, but they also highlight curious animal behavior and pertinent environmental issues.

All of this is positive, so what is it that I find so objectionable? The answer, sadly, is the willful ignorance of the typical zoo goer. The bad behavior I observed on Sunday is routine. I watched people feed french fries and gold fish crackers to ducks and geese, and toss chunks of soft pretzel at Pere David deer (Elaphurus davidianus). Others banged on glass enclosures housing rodents, birds, reptiles, amphibians or monkeys. When I politely chided one young boy for striking several snake enclosures, he replied, "You're not my Dad," and ran off. Minutes later, I watched in shock as his father rapped on a turtle enclosure.

Some youngsters cursed at the animals while their parents stood nearby, saying things like, "Oh, that's gross" or "Yeah, you know that mother fu*ker is thinking about getting some frog pussy later tonight." One zoo goer approached a display and loudly asked, "What is that? Oh, my God. It's weird," then walked away. She never looked at the signage. A NASCAR fan (judging by his shirt and cap) was perplexed by the inclusion of a chainsaw in a rainforest vivarium. Leaning over a sign that detailed the negative impacts of logging in Central and South America, he shouted over his shoulder to his wife, "What is the hacksaw doing there?!"

Watching a group of gelada baboons (Theropithecus gelada) groom one another in the shade, I was startled by the booming voice of a middle-aged woman behind me. "Look at the gorillas. See the gorillas, everyone? You see 'em? Look at the Gorillas. Are these Gorillas? Yeah, these are the gorillas. See this one here? He's the father and he's cleaning the mother. Ain't that cute? Ain't that something? Damn! See over there. That's the babies of this mother and father gorilla. Umhmmm. Neat, huh? Look at those gorillas! That's something." I worried that the male baboon would be spooked by her soliloquy but, used to such noise and nonsense, he cast a few drowsy glances in our direction and continued grooming one of his harem. That the female he groomed was not pair-bonded, that the other females were not his offspring and that none of these monkeys were apes, much less gorillas, was of no interest to the woman. Rather than correct her, I watched to see if she would notice the large 2' x 8' sign in front of her, and thereby realize that these animals were not gorillas. She did not.

Zoo goers don't seem interested in learning. The zoo is, for most visitors, a place to kill some time with the kids. As a result, every animal is turned into a playtime caricature. All the species of toucan on display was either "Toucan Sam" or "Zazu from 'The Lion King.'" (No toucan species is native to Africa, and Zazu was a species of hornbill.) The Siberian tigers (Panthera tigris altaica) were "Tony the Tiger" or "Exxon." Every animal is also characterized as horny (see frog comments above) or lazy ("Yeah, see up in the shade? He's chillin' after a long night of drinkin' with the boys."). Rarely is a creature deemed a fascinating fellow inhabitant of Earth, a testament to the marvel of evolution that is deserving of respect, study and conservation. Instead, the animals are reduced to easy parody and dismissed. Treated so poorly, the zoo encounter will merit little more than a show-and-tell remark; a day at the zoo generates the variety of temporal titillation summer blockbusters aim for.

A zoo trip isn't only about laughing at the unusual, though. Lifetime memories are granted via the purchase of stuffed animals. These plush, minaturized representations of the animal kingdom are manufactured in the Philippines, and they are more tolerable and meaningful than any fenced or caged beast, especially when they are tastefully arranged on a made bed.

When I visit zoos, I invariably contend with a surge of misanthropic loathing. Had someone approached me on Sunday afternoon with Edward Hoagland's "new variety of neutron bomb," one that kills off humanity but spares the "rest of creation," the nihilistic temptation would have been great. Of course, even if such a weapon existed, I wouldn't use it. There is no sense in punishing humanity for its inherited prejudices, most of which are shared by all the beasts. Still, one wonders how so many humans assume scalae naturae superiority, yet lack moral idealism and curiosity.

Photo credit: ripped from Strategic Transitions

12 comments:

Devo said...

HH, I unfortunately share your recently renewed disgust for humanity. I say unfortunately because I try to retain an idealistic and probably rather naive love for all living things, despite their inevitable foibles or flaws. However, when one observes wanton acts of willful ignorance and derision towards curiosity, one can't help but hang one's head in shame for our entire populace.

One particular acquaintance comes to mind. Whenever a word with three syllables or more emanated from my mouth in the course of a conversation, he'd stop me and say "Hey, man, I went to public school." As if that prevented him from ever realizing a marginally intelligent vocabulary, much less the intellectual capacity to actually USE said vocabulary. Now, I went to public school too, but before that, my parents had sense enough to instill a healthy curiosity in me, a fascination with the world around me. Once that took hold, there was no stopping me. The mode of education was incidental. Just as long as I was continually expanding my mind.

I agree with you, HH, that curiosity is one of the key components in cultivating a responsible understanding of the world. Unfortunately, however, numerous characteristics of the society and culture that we live in make that one, key component extraordinarily difficult to inculcate in a child. I'm not trying to make excuses for the idiots of the world, but merely trying to say that if we don't start paying attention to these aggravating factors making curiosity itself nothing more than a curiosity, then I fear that we may end up with something far more dangerous than a bunch of ignorami pounding on the glass at the zoo.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Well said, Devo...but what does "inculcate" mean? I don't speak Asshole.

Seriously, though...a product of public school at the elementary, middle and undergraduate level, I too believe we can "educate" all classes to be curious, but as you point out this has more to do with parental guidance than the school system itself. I was also lucky enough to score into the "Gifted & Talented" classes, where I participated in Odyssey of the Mind, debate teams and the like. Of course, such situations are inherently biased, but they do represent a step in the right direction.

As for friends like the one you describe....it's frustrating. I have a few friends with whom I can only broach tested subjects or they become bored, confused or both. As a result, I tend to lose interest in irrigating these relationships. There are only so many times one can deal with such defensiveness and faux pride before you start counting the instances and not returning phone calls or emails. Then again, I didn't go to public high school, so maybe I'm naive.

Devo said...

Oh this was no friend, HH. No friend at all. But I was forced into conversation with this individual on numerous occasions. Either way, he was a shitbag of the first order. Still is. And I fear for and pity the progeny he will one day unleash upon our decaying world.

But on to more pretentious matters!

in-cul-cate (verb, transitive) [Latin inculcatus, pp. of inculcare, to tread in, tread down {in-, in, on + calcare, to trample underfoot} to impress upon the mind by frequent repetition or persistent urging. Synonym - instill

Not only do I SPEAK asshole, I define it pretty spiffily too!

Hungry Hyaena said...

I know what inculcate means, Devo. Jeez.....I was just trying to bust your balls. By actually defining it, though, you've proven that you are worthy of donning the Asshole crown. Long live King Devo! I kid, I kid...

Anyway, that's enough talk of balls and assholes for this afternoon.

I do appreciate your posting the definition, though, because I never knew the root of the word. It is interesting that it stems from "trample." Clearly the Romans meant to distinguish this word from other forms of teaching. I typically use "inculcate" in the same way you did in your first comment above.

"Unfortunately, however, numerous characteristics of the society and culture that we live in make that one, key component extraordinarily difficult to inculcate in a child."

Perhaps it is better used to connote some degree of authoritarianism, whether that of a church, state or individual.

Devo said...

I agree, and now that I think of it, "inculcate" usually connotes a sense of repetitive droning rather than cultivation, which is a sense I'd have preferred to convey.

Thanks for the nomination, by the way... I'm honored...

Yancey said...

nice post, chris.

Anonymous said...

"I know what inculcate means, Devo. Jeez.....I was just trying to bust your balls. By actually defining it, though, you've proven that you are worthy of donning the Asshole crown. Long live King Devo! I kid, I kid..."

This is why I hate forums. I'm guessing that was something like a chess move: if it stands, it looks like he's being pompous, if he defines it, I can make it look like I knew ALL ALONG.

Humans not having a higher level of intellectual curiosity about animals: pompous. Analogy (yes, personinification) is a fundamental reasoning tool for humans. While reading and education bear greatly on a person's eloquence, they have little effect on the IQ. That you went to the zoo and paid to study the animals you're surrounded by everyday is ironic. I'll give you that.

Anonymous said...

"I know what inculcate means, Devo. Jeez.....I was just trying to bust your balls. By actually defining it, though, you've proven that you are worthy of donning the Asshole crown. Long live King Devo! I kid, I kid..."

This is why I hate forums. I'm guessing that was something like a chess move: if it stands, it looks like he's being pompous, if he defines it, I can make it look like I knew ALL ALONG.

Humans not having a higher level of intellectual curiosity about animals: pompous. Analogy (yes, personinification) is a fundamental reasoning tool for humans. While reading and education bear greatly on a person's eloquence, they have little affect on the IQ. That you went to the zoo and paid to study the animals you're surrounded by everyday is ironic. I'll give you that.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Anonymous:

I like having new voices around, so I'm happy that you commented...even if your post is rather patronizing.

"Inculcate" is a fairly common word in the media these days. I was making no "chess move," rather just ribbing Devo while referencing his mention of "three syllable words." At least, that was my intent. I almost picked another word, like "capacity" or "component," but thought they would be less funny choices.

Anthropomorphism is, as you suggest, an effective "reasoning tool for humans," but it can lead to some fundamental misunderstandings. Furthermore, in an age where most people have little contact with other species - ignoring micro-species, common house pets and those few adaptable animals, like cockroaches and pigeons - the assumptions we make via attribution and projection are that much more uniform, thereby decreasing the diversity/individuality of other species' characters. They're all reduced to variations on a theme. If we cultivated every houseplant according to the same care sheet, most species would die.

mynameisjulian said...

I apologize if my comments seemed patronizing. I think Girard's mimetic theory excuses my actions, somewhat anyway. That and I've been rather frustrated with the fora I've posted on recently. te internet's becoming overrun with name-calling conservatives...

You raise valid points - Now if only there were some mandatory animal, plant, or bacteria understanding test that determined whether humans would be or should be capable of sherpardship. Unfortunately, the best we can do is education. Mandating sherpardship seems unnecessarily beauracratic.

Analogy is, of course, not the preferred method of comprehension. But usually, it's the first. In a planaria experiment, I introduced vitamin B6 into a controlled environment. (The purpose of this study was to gain a general understanding of the vitamin urinary waste on lower-level organisms. Think of the sewers.) Anyway, I joked with my biology prof, "Haha, it's like they're jumping up on their legs for the stuff." Of course, planaria don't have legs. What was really happening, we were quite aware, was that they were testing their new environment, adapting if you will. But we prefer to keep the lab informal.

Nice to meet you. I think I'll be around more.

mynameisjulian said...

Hah. Sorry for the typos.

*a general understanding of the effect of vitamin urinary waste on lower-level organisms.

Hungry Hyaena said...

MyNameIsJulian:

Nice to meet you, too. Typos are acceptable. ;)