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lions and tigers and anthropopathism, oh my
zoo's your own adventure
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

You spend nine Sunday hours at the San Diego Zoo.

The original plan was to spend a few hours at the zoo and then enjoy other attractions in San Diego. But you and your coworker realize, after two hours with the orangutans and the giant pandas and the occasional exotic blue pigeon, San Diego could have no other attractions that compare to this.

It is February. You are walking around in bright sunlight in short sleeves. Your day is made, two hours in.

You do, however, get just a tad uncomfortable at the orangutans. They are funny, they are entertaining, they are bright orange-furred acrobats who swing wildly through the air like the Flying Graysons. The uncomfortable moment comes when the youngest, smallest one climbs to the top of a rock and extends his hand, palm out flat, for another orang to take.

You can't pin down the feeling. You move on.

Next, you watch the way the sun glints off the diving ducks as the water runs off their backs. And the polar bears. You love the polar bears. You are enchanted by the way one bear swims from the rock to the glass over and over and over again, exactly the same way each time. He leaps out from the rock backward, swims upside down to the glass, dives down along the wall, pushes against the glass with huge, broad black-padded paws, and swims along the bottom back to the rock.

After 15 minutes you begin to wonder why he does this. Does he enjoy it? Was he taught to do it, by humans?

And you realize that is what bothered you about the orangs: they were so much like humans. And then you wonder, which should bother you more? The animals that are like humans, or the ones that aren't? And it bothers you, too, that you're trying to interpret an animal, the polar bear, in the framework of a completely different animal, the human.

It occurs to you that you should shut up and enjoy the zoo.

And you do enjoy it. But when you write it down, a different slant appears from almost nowhere, a slant that didn't appear when you described the tour out loud. You do not have room to write about the whole experience in all its complexity, so you write about the parts that are important to the story you're trying to tell, and all those parts, at this point in the story, point to one thing: your mood is not quite what it was earlier in the day.

When you were a girl - because you were once a girl, living in a lavender room with the far wall papered in rainbows - you loved koalas. You had your favorite, stuffed, and his name was Stitchey. You did your sixth-grade report on Australia and pasted in the little Qantas mascot bears. You found this paper last year. The white-out had faded to transparency and the errors showed through.

The real koala is charming, but sleepy. He presses his face into the eucalyptus trunk. He is facing just exactly the wrong way for you to spot his broad nose, his small round eyes, that familiar face that peered out at you in your youth, from Stitchey on the bed, from cross-stitched samplers and a latch-hook rug purchased for you by one grandmother. It is now four o'clock. You are beginning to suspect that some of the animals are hiding from you just to be ornery. You are beginning to suspect the koala of intentional thwarting. You are not sure koalas are intelligent enough to plan a successful thwart. You buy a pack of playing cards backed with koalas who appear more alert, and head back among the habitats. You want to see cats.

You took an online test recently - because you are the kind of person who takes online tests - to determine What Kind of Dog you are. You were a Bernese Shepherd, which was the wrong answer, because it was the wrong test. You have never been a dog. You are a cat. You like to think you are the poster child for calm detachment.

One of the leopards is missing a foot. You watch her and can't decide whether or not what you're feeling is sadness. A small crowd of humans stands motionless, watching a restless animal limp. In the wild she would be at too much of a disadvantage in the hunt. Is she better off this way? Do leopards grasp the concept of better? Do leopards grasp the concept of captivity or audience or disability or vengeance or hope? What would she do if she could do what she wanted?

Shakespeare occurs to you. If I had my mouth I would bite. If I had my liberty I would do my liking. In the meantime, let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me.

It is getting late. The sun has gone. You have come to the end of the row of cats.

You split up from your coworker, so she can visit the hummingbird aviary and you can take the lions and bears at a run. The two lions roar in concert and then in reply, then the larger one drops down to have his mane licked. The other lion obliges for some time, but when the first lion grows tired of being indulged, he snaps. The obliging lion withdraws without moving, and appears to sulk. You believe you know people like this. You are annoyed with yourself for assigning human emotions to the animals yet again. This stops next door when one of the bears lumbers to the front of his enclosure to nonchalantly urinate, soaking the cement.

It occurs to you that all these humans, you included, have used the tools of your developed civilization -- a designed and constructed car on a designed and constructed freeway, a watch to measure the time, currency to pay your way in, orthopedic shoes -- to be standing here at this moment, in a mute line, all watching a bear pee.

The zoo closes at five.

And you head out to the car and off to the mall, which, although it has no roof, is in all other ways reassuringly familiar, and devoid of interpretation, as malls are.

In the car on the way to the mall, the two of you discuss your day, the highlights, the regrets. Your coworker never got to see the Tasmanian Devil. You only know what it looks like because there's a picture, with sound, on your Microsoft Encarta. It sounds exactly like the cartoon sounds, but unlike the Warner Brothers version, it probably fails to turn into a cyclone no matter how fast it goes. You are disappointed there were no more cats, but you don't think there was anything you missed. This is what you say out loud. What you don't say out loud, you think to yourself.

You don't know if you saw all you meant to see, or more.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


let's make a deal?
paying a price for not paying the price
by jael mchenry
topic: general
published: 10.5.11

twenty questions
to ponder, to answer, perchance to dream
by jael mchenry
topic: general
published: 8.4.04


jeffrey walker
3.27.00 @ 1:12p

I am glad someone else struggles with the urge to assign human characteristics to animals. I actually gave my dog his own voice. He and I have conversations for hours, and I'm sure he's oblivious to the whole thing. Hell... most of my stuffed animals have voices. I often wonder if THEY feel sad when I don't talk to them enough. Ever read "The velveteen rabbit"? That damn story brings me to tears every time.

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