I know lots of people who hate zoos, won’t visit them, no way, no how. I am ambivalent. It is exciting to be able to get a good close look at animals that most people never see outside their television. But it is also hard to look at the critters and consider where they “should” be instead.
The last time I visited a zoo it was at Point Defiance in Tacoma. We watched the polar bears swim and play and it was exciting, but as soon as I got home, I had to research why those bears were there at all. Kenneth and Boris were rescued from a traveling circus, their life at the enclosure at the Point Defiance zoo was a real improvement over their “jobs” as circus bears. I did not love the Point Defiance zoo, but I liked reading that the bears were better off there. I also liked learning that the zoo has a reputation for rehabbing “problem” elephants. (I was sad to read that one of the bears, Kenneth, was euthanized last year after what sounds vaguely like a stroke — he was paralyzed on one side.)
Polar bears “should” be in the Arctic, elephants “should” be in the jungles of southeast Asia. These particular animals are not where they “should” be, due to the intervention of humans, so better they should be in places they get good care. That does not ease my emotions so much, but it settles my intellect when confronted with the sight of two very large grizzlies, Keema and Denali, who live at Woodland Park Zoo. These guys came to the zoo from a Washington State University research program. (My search did not reveal how they ended up at WSU.) Grizzlies “should” be in the big forests and snowy mountains of the northern hemisphere, not in landscaped enclosures, but I was struck by how nice the digs for these bears (and their neighbors, the otters) were at the Woodland Park Zoo.
In one of the gorilla pens, there was a big female sacked out on a pile of hay right in front of the glass. She was curled up on one side, her top hand wrapped around her foot. The crowd watching her sleep — how weird is that — included some ten or eleven year old boys. “Look at its hands,” one of them said. “They look so… realistic!” The gorilla took a deep breath and scratched her nose. I wondered if she might wake up and look at us, blinking. She didn’t, she sighed, and went back to napping. I looked at her hand tucked between her feet, her even nails, the lines on the back of her fingers just like mine. We moved on.
The zoo has changed since I was there last — it might be more than five years, it could be as many as ten. There are still netted habitats for birds where you can walk around in makeshift forests, pretending to bird watch as though you’re in the wild. But the penguins and the primates have a lot more room. The critters of the north have meadow space — there appears to be room for the elk to actually run, though it must annoy the wolves to be separated from them by a chain link and barbed wire fence. The big cats have more space too, though the sloth bears are still in an old school diorama. I wasn’t in love with the African savannah setting, but it is admittedly hard to see zebras in a zoo when you have seen them punctuating the horizon well into infinity. The facilities for humans have improved as well — the zoo now has quite a good food court and a few stands around the ground that offer a lot more than your fairground concession stand chow. And hey, it’s the future, so you can get your map as an app for your phone, which may or may not make it easier to find your way to the meerkats. Who, as an aside, seemed absolutely captivated by the human children jumping up and down on the rocks just outside the exhibit area.
Whenever I’m at a zoo, I have to remind myself that these are not exactly wild animals, nor are they domesticated pets, they are something in between. Listening to the running commentary provided by the zoo’s guests, I also have to remind myself of the extreme privilege I’ve had to see so many of these critters in their natural habitat. We burst out laughing at a woman who said, in perfectly serious outrage, “That’s insane, they can’t have lions here! Look at that place, they’ll get out and eat people!” But while staring at the napping tapir, I listened to one of the dads ask his kid what the word is for an animal who’s active at night. (Nocturnal, Junior. It’s nocturnal.) Earlier, at the orangutan pen, I heard another dad say, “That would have been you a few million years ago.”
Yay for people who think about evolution, and who see the zoo as an educational place to learn about our world. That’s how I try to think about the zoo — as a place to learn about our world.
Practical stuff: We went to the zoo on a comped CityPASS so we didn’t pay for our tickets — currently, it’s 18.75 for an adult, rates drop after October 1. There’s pay parking but it’s not that hard to find free street parking close by. The food court does look good, but we opted to head up to that old Seattle standby for absolutely obscene burgers and fries and onion rings — Red Mill Burgers.