Still, things happen, and there is a lot to learn at the zoo. There is a lot to feel at the zoo. For me, its primarily internal conflict.
Henry Vilas Zoo, frequent backdrop of my childhood. Vilas is a small neighborhood zoo in Madison, one of only a few free zoos in the country. My grandpa used to take me there as a little girl for free Shriner camel rides on Sunday mornings. We'd stand in line until some old guy in a fez tossed me up on a dromedary as it ambled by in a well-worn circle. I'd pretty much never set foot in a church in those days, and this seemed like a totally reasonable worship-substitute. He took my mom there when she was little, too, to visit the elephants. Back in the 60's area children collected spare change for months, eventually raising enough money to buy Winkie, a replacement for the beloved Annie the elephant who died a couple of years prior of a foot infection. Winkie was well-loved and received many gifts, including a twenty-pound birthday cake every year. Then one day she grabbed a popcorn-wielding girl, pulled her through the bars, and stomped her to death. My mom remembers that happening. Apparently Vilas also housed the notorious Susie the Smoking Simian around that time. She was a rhesus monkey who picked up a bad smoking habit from her previous private owners, and generous zoo patrons were kind enough keep her well-supplied with cigs. So, yeah. Quality.
I am not advocating for zoos here, nor am I condemning them. Vilas is sad for all of the obvious reasons, but it still has value. It still means something to me. After years of studying animals in their natural environments, it does make it even harder to look at the zoo residents. And yet, sometimes when I am out there in the wild, following tracks in the mud or shivering from the cold leaching through an icy metal scope, I do think about my old zoo. And I can't help but wonder if part of the reason I am who and where I am today doesn't have at least a little something to do with the zoo.
Don't stop 'till you get enough:
If you've got a little spare time, perhaps while baking dove-shaped sundries, listen to this interesting Radio Lab Podcast about zoos. Learn about zoo history and reform, and how even small improvements to enclosures can get animals' brain synapses to bloom significantly in just a few weeks.
And if you have more than a little spare time, peep these thought-provoking essays from Orion Magazine about a conflicted orangutan and a brainy octopus.
And then watch this short and moving video about Isa Leshko's work photographing Elderly Animals.