At the cheetah exhibit, a man is dangling his six-month-old baby over a fence that reads, "Hazard: Stay off the guardrail." He's doing this so his wife can take a picture of their baby "with" the cheetah, i.e. cheetah background, baby foreground. Dad dangles while mom holds the camera. The look that passes between them says, "Yes, this is fucked up, but won't the pictures be perfect?"
There's a shallow pond between the cheetahs and the fence, so the danger isn't simply dropping your baby and watching the cheetahs pounce (and surely they'd investigate if a lump of flesh toppled into their exhibit); there's also the danger of dropping your baby and watching it drown before you can realize what a hopeless dick you've been, then hop the awkward fence and wade over to your baby's pond-logged body.
These zooers strike me as the type who, in another setting, would demand to see your nursing credentials before allowing you anywhere near their kid. Possibly they're of the high-powered-attorney set that's endemic to D.C.—they'd make you yawn at a party, but the Zoo is bringing out a dynamic negligence in them.
The couple gets their baby-with-cheetah shot and moves on, baby uneaten and undrowned, and I decide that I like the Zoo—there's ridiculousness to be had here. A kind of de-evolution.
The Zoo's web site says of animal enrichment:
- Environmental enrichment is the process of providing stimulating environments for Zoo animals in order for them to demonstrate their species-typical behavior, to allow them [to] exercise control or choice over their environment, and to enhance their well-being.
- Enrichment includes the design of stimulating and naturalistic enclosures, the housing of appropriate social groups in zoos, and the introduction of objects, sounds, smells or other stimuli in the animal's environment.
- Environmental enrichment is just as critical to Zoo animal welfare as nutrition and veterinary medicine. At the National Zoo, enrichment is an integral part of the daily care of the species in our collection.
I hear a barred owl do its "hoo, hoo, hoo" thing today, and realize I haven't heard an actual owl do this in some time, and that the versions I've heard on TV or in the movies (and so have come to think of as "that sound owls make") sound nothing like this owl; and I wonder if it's just that this particular species of owl has a distinctive sound, or if TV and movies have been lying to me about what owls sound like for my entire life. Unnerving, city-dweller problem.
The Stanley cranes have a notice in their viewing area that reads, "Caution: Aggressive Cranes." I am very curious about this behavior. Their educational sign says something about kicking during nesting season, but how would they boot zooers through the wire fence? I observe them for a while, but witness only preening and food-searching. I notice in myself a great temptation to try to bring out this aggression. I resist, though only partly out of decency.
The ravens are hanging out in some black-veiled enclosure; possibly have already been put to bed by their keepers (it is around 4:45 p.m.). Make a lot of noise and are difficult to see. Nevermore.
The sign outside the Przewalski's (sheh-VAL-skee's) Horses says they are the last truly wild horses in the world, since they have never been tamed for riding. They are light brown and look more pony-sized than horse-sized. Large heads, bodies squat and muscular. That said, they look a lot like horses (since they are horses) and this tends to make zooers yawn and say, "Oh, I guess they have some horses." I still have a little girl's love of horses, so I join two actual little girls as they watch the Prezwalski's eating hay. It is lovely and nostalgic until one of the horses lifts its tail and begins shitting, at which point one of the little girls turns and calls to her father, saying "Look! Look!" She is overjoyed, breathless to be witnessing some new animal behavior. Her father, though, is grossed out, and the group moves on. Witnessing his disgust breaks the spell.
Piss and shit are definite issues at the Zoo. There are signs everywhere that tell you how many minutes away you are from the nearest bathroom. I find this helpful when I make the mistake of drinking a large iced coffee before entering the Zoo. That's the human piss and shit. But the animal piss and shit are a whole other affair. The animals take a dump whenever and wherever, and aren't the least bit embarrassed about it. Why would they be? But the human viewers are uncomfortable having all of this out in the open. Zooers laugh; they say "Oh," and quickly look away; they shake their heads and move on to the next exhibit. And there's often a sense of, "Now why did you have to go and do that?" As if these animals are pets that pissed on the ficus when their owner was at work.
VERY loud ape docent stationed inside the Giant Ape House. The woman's main function seems to be to remind people not to tap on the glass. There is something irresistible about tapping on the glass; the apes are so human. It is as if the zooers have just spotted a friend having dinner inside a restaurant and they want to rap on the glass and scream hello.
The apes, like the cheetahs, have a kind of badass boredom. They could kick any zooer's ass if they were free, but they're stuck in this display, so they just sit on their burlap-wrapped branch and stare at us as if we are so inferior that they can't even imagine how embarrassing it must be to be us. Sadly, I find myself agreeing with their assessment.
Much documentation, though a bit better behaved, perhaps because of the loud and authoritarian ape docent. I feel guilty staring at the apes; they so clearly see me back (and are unimpressed with this human exhibit).
High, high cuteness factor on the giant pandas. One tumbles around adorably inside its exhibit. It is moving too fast for parents to take their desired photos, though, and this is of epic concern. There is very little watching of the sweet, tumbly panda, and much frantic shutter-snapping. Also, parents keep shooting me the stink eye for taking up space in the viewing area. They seem pretty sure that the Zoo is made for their children and their documentation of their children, so a single woman walking around without a diaper bag in the world is anathema. The message is clear: "If you block my kid's viewing experience and/or my shot of my kid's viewing experience, I will impale you on this stroller handle and then yell at you for having messed up my stroller."
The second panda is in a separate exhibit, lying in the back of the enclosure on a huge, fake rock. It must be sleeping, but it is strewn across the rock in a way that makes it appear slain. Zooers observe it for ten or fifteen seconds before moving on, looking unsettled.
In general, it seems to be embarrassing when the animals aren't anywhere near as excited to see us as we are to see them. And so far I haven't seen any animal excited to be watched.
When I get to the Small Mammal House, a lemur is pacing along one side of the glass. A young zooer asks her father, "Why is it walking back and forth? Why is it walking back and forth?" The father doesn't respond, just hustles her along to the next exhibit. The hedgehogs, too (and porcupines, while we're at it) turn away from the viewing area and curl up, away from the glass. It occurs to me that we zooers have shown up at their house uninvited and asked them to put on a tedious play called "I love my exhibit, and I love your children, and I love you!!" But when the creatures make it clear that not only do they not love us, but are in fact bored or terrified by us, we're so confused that we either move along quickly or begin tapping on the glass to try to get this freakin' production started already.
It's difficult to say this without obvious sexual overtones, but lord do I love the beavers.
On the American Trail, they are working their river loop. The first one I see has its eyes closed and is drifting counterclockwise along a little waterway that slides past some fake rocks and on through a beaver-sized metal hole. I'm sure there is some activity on his part, to keep him moving, but it seems minimal. The overall effect is one of: "Bitch, I'm chillin'."
There is a brief skirmish when a second beaver, swimming clockwise, bumps into the first beaver at the little metal hole. The beavers flop around a little, but manage to squeeze through without getting stuck, which seems counter to the traffic pattern just outside the Zoo gates (D.C. drivers would rather fuck themselves and the other guy before ceding territory).
I follow one beaver as it climbs out of the water and onto dry land—an area of low, fake rocks and lots of chipped wood and wet soil. The fence is about chest-high, and when I lean near it, the little guy rises up on his back feet and sniffs at me, probably looking for a handout. I can't resist snapping a picture of him, just like any other zooer, and whispering a chirpy "Hi!" The negative or disinterested reactions of other Zoo creatures has possibly turned me into the Zoo-abandoned or Zoo-orphaned: happy to document and thank a single sniff.
There are half a dozen people gathered in one of the viewing areas for the sea lions, and that's a lot for a rainy Monday afternoon. I quickly learn why: the sea lions are freakin' excited to see and play with zooers. Their informative sign says they are "sociable," and this is an understatement. I spot four during my time in the viewing area. One, a sea lion elder, looks like she's been in a few bar fights—one eye stitched shut and a lot of white around her snout. She isn't energetic, but she stays right in the viewing area, almost touching the glass, and looks lovingly at you with her one, big brown eye. A second sea lion is slightly less sociable, but also stays close, often at the bottom of the tank for long stretches, prompting young zooers to ask, "How long can it stay down there? It's gotta come up eventually, right? How long has it been?" (repeated concerns regarding sea lion drowning/suicide).
The third sea lion is the youngest and most sociable. She seems, in fact, desperate to entertain and please, and this makes us all extremely happy. A teenaged girl and her friend sit on the ground and start waving at her. The sea lion responds by following one girl's hand as it moves, doing elaborate twists and turns. The girl catches on and begins tracing arcs against the glass, all of which the sea lion follows, flipping, twisting, zooming. We all laugh and document photographically. It is spectacular, how acrobatic this sea lion is, and how eager she is to play with us. One guy says, "It's so refreshing, since all the other animals hate us." This is, of course, a thought I've been having myself—that all the animals hate us—so it's nice to hear. Of course, a few seconds later, he says, "Wow, it's like some kind of app," which makes me hate him. These animals may hate us, but at least they're real, and we're out here in the rain, having a day, or an afternoon. We're learning something about the ways in which these animals hate us. But an app? A fucking app? That is not a day.
The fourth sea lion, and in many ways the shtickiest sea lion, is the one that zooms by the viewing area on her back, eyes closed, every minute or two. This must be her afternoon ritual, just like the beavers, but her speed and timing are unbeatable. Just when you've forgotten about her and focused on the acrobatic sea lion, she zips by again. And she hotflippers it. She's swimming maybe 11 or 12 miles per hour, which doesn't sound breakneck, but I'm pretty sure none of us in the viewing area could run that fast for long (if at all) and we certainly couldn't keep it up lap after lap, eyes closed, on our backs. Her comedic timing is perfect, and I find myself crushing on her the hardest.
On my way back up the American Trail, I notice the gray wolves are trotting back and forth in their enclosure, awake and on guard. This is much more exciting than when I saw them earlier in the day, snoozing near the back of their enclosure, so I book it up the hill, wanting to reach them before they return to dormancy.
When I get there, I see the two teenaged girls from the sea lion exhibit. One has her rain-booted foot up on the fence, and is moving it back and forth, all casual-like, which is producing a big fucking squeaky noise. Now I realize: the girl has been squeaking her foot along the fence so the wolves would wake up and investigate. This strikes me as an especially pathetic form of forced interaction, like roofie-ing a chick's drink, and makes me feel superior for resisting the urge to provoke the cranes. I glare at her and her rain boot, and she smoothly puts her foot on the ground. The wolves continue trotting along the fence and trees, and I wish I could toss this girl to them, so she'd finally have their full attention.
There is a small crowd around the Cuban crocodiles, and it doesn't take long to figure out what's drawing them in: the hot croc sex. The crocodile docent explains that these two are a pair, and that there is a baby Cuban crocodile from a previous breeding season just around the corner. At first the crocs appear just to be snuggling in their pond, but then the male is clearly on top of the female. The water is shallow and transparent; nothing is beyond sight of the viewing area.
Several parents are embarrassed by this blatant sexual activity. They listen in horror as older kids press their faces to the glass and exclaim "They're going to have babies! They're going to have babies!" The female croc is completely underwater, and several younger children express concern that the male is "drowning" her. There is talk of "rescue." But then the female, as if to explain herself, easily lifts her nose above the surface and takes a breath before returning to submersion.
One or two parents take this opportunity to hurry their kids around the corner for a glimpse at the baby Cuban crocodile. And it's only the promise of a baby croc that gets the kids away from this scene without kicking and screaming. Even the littlest ones seem to know this is something to see. Young and old zooers stay for a long time, mesmerized by the croc porn. Much documentation by adult zooers, though none by parent zooers.
On the Zoo's web site, it says that in the Pollinarium, "Butterflies float by on wings that flutter lazily in the silence." Yes, there are butterflies, but the silenced is pierced by the sound of many zooers zooing. Also, there is no lazy fluttering. Butterflies wing away with haste, as there are several zooers determined to have a butterfly sit on their finger for a photo op that they will no doubt later describe as "magical" (even if this magic entails forcibly placing a terrified butterfly on their finger).
The red panda is curled up tight in the branches of a tall tree, taking a nap. It is the size of a raccoon, and is a deep red, thus the name. The cuteness factor is immense. Adorable little pointy ears and fuzzy body. Many zooers leaning over the high part of the viewing area to watch it breathe. Tail all puffy and wrapped around itself. Much documentation.
I have stopped taking pictures myself, after seeing what the other zooers look like when they take pictures, i.e. the Borg—lenses fixed to their faces, movements robotic, numb to their environment.
It occurs to me that the term "zooer" sounds a lot like "sewer." I do not want to be one of them. I get an enjoyable feeling of superiority as I observe the red panda with my stark-naked eye.
The wallaby is like a tiny kangaroo, and very cute. Does one little mini-hop. It hangs snug to a large shrub, I assume so it can hop back into hiding if too many people harass it.
There are signs at many exhibits that say “Can’t Find the Animals?” and go on to explain that the keepers like to give the animals choices, i.e. places to hide out when they’re sick of being stared at, hooted at, snapped at, squeaked at, cried at, called at, clicked at, etc. I like the idea of the animals being on break. It reminds me of when I worked at a call center, and how much I looked forward to my two 15's and one 30-minute break a day—brief opportunities to get the fuck away from my cubicle and all those callers yammering away.
One child sees a "Can't Find the Animals?" sign and says, "It's like a treasure hunt! It's like a treasure hunt!" That does seem to follow the pattern: find the animal, take a picture of the animal, move on to the next animal.
On Connecticut Avenue this morning, as I cross a driveway that leads into the Zoo, a driver trying to turn from Connecticut into the driveway shouts at me, "Any day!!"
I'm all for road rage (it's one of D.C.'s natural resources, like Vermont's maple syrup) but I draw the line at harassing pedestrians in crosswalks. I can only hope the Zoo creatures are tucked into one of their "choices" by the time this dick starts humping down the path to their exhibits.
My beavers are floating in their upper pool, VERY chill. They eventually climb down and gnaw on a piece of wood in their lower pool. One young zooer is disappointed that the beavers don't feel threatened, because the kid would like to see one slap its tail in the water (his aunt has just explained that this is what they do when they feel threatened). Kid asks, "Why don't they feel threatened? Why?" Seems truly devastated.
A teenaged boy outside the clouded leopard exhibit says, "I wonder if it likes it here better, because it doesn't have to hunt or anything." Reminds me of those who say, "I wonder if people in wheelchairs like it better, because they don't have to walk or anything."
Many zooers finding it unfair that the cheetahs are housed next to the zebras (and can eyeball them through a wire fence) since the cheetahs must surely want to eat the zebras. I feel superior now that I know a zebra is much too big for a cheetah. Perhaps I've been spending too much time at the Zoo, as I'm now believing that it is my Zoo, these are my animals. I know them; you don't. I enjoy watching other zooers get lost, and don't direct them when they start off for the flamingos but actually head toward the red panda. Possibly my own form of Zoo-induced de-evolution, á la baby-danglers.
This evening, I watch videos of the keepers working with various animals at the National Zoo. The keepers are at pains to clarify that they do not force the animals to perform—everything is a choice. The elephants can choose to play the harmonica, or the apes can choose to play with iPads, etc. Great efforts to distinguish what they do from what a traveling circus does.
I watch as keepers whistle-train lions to take a shot, i.e. an injection. They start training when the animals are cubs. First they slip a dull wand through the bars of the cage, and when the wand touches the cub's rump, the keeper blows her whistle and gives the cub a ball of raw meat.
When the animals are desensitized to this touch, the keepers increase the sharpness of the wand. And still, the lion is fine with being poked. It will line up right next to the bars while it waits for the wand, the whistle, and the meat.
Finally, the keepers use an actual needle. The lion leans against the bars, and doesn't shrink away when the needle pierces her skin.
The keepers say that as soon as the animals are interested in meat, they can start training. If you know what an animal wants, you can get it to do any number of behaviors that it wouldn't do otherwise.
There is now a tantalizing strip of caution tape slung around several tall cones near the Stanley cranes. The cranes are still on exhibit, but the cones and tape keep zooers from getting too close to the fence.
Distressed to have missed whatever caused this precautionary measure. The Zoo's web site reveals nothing. And attempts to locate videos online of aggressive Stanley cranes have turned up nada.
Zooers stand near the caution tape and make sure to get it in the shot.
Educational signs hang over a row of hand driers in the women's bathroom, e.g.:
- Potty Mouth? It's only natural for a Cnidarian (ne-DARE-ee-en). Cnidarians (like jellyfish, corals, and sea anemones) are animals with only one opening—for eating and for expelling! Food enters the mouth, gets digested, and waste goes back out the mouth.
It seems that the keepers or park planners are always thinking about me, even when I'm in the restroom.
Also, on the Zoo's web site (in response to a bad link):
This discovery is immensely pleasing, though I'm not sure exactly why, given its otterociously cheeseball nature.
Today a woman viewing the clawed otters on the Asia Trail drops her voice until it is nearly inaudible, then whispers to her husband, "Nasty little creatures."
There is a large pack of otters, and they scamper after each other, gnawing on ears and wrestling in the water. Lots of "oooh"s and "aaah"s from the viewing area as zooers catch the action and try to record it on their cellphones.
Now the woman's daughter says, "They're hard to take a picture of because they're so active." This sounds refreshingly mature to me until her mom says, "Yes, they're very active," in an exhausted tone that suggests the daughter is just echoing her, as daughters do. It strikes me now that this little girl may even grow up to be the sort of woman who whispers, "Nasty little creatures" about a group of animals whom she and her family have sought out for viewing.
Nasty little creatures, indeed.
Finding it impossible not to imagine how these animals are feeling about their Zoo experience, e.g. angry, embarrassed, depressed. I overhear a keeper explaining that the vast majority of zoo animals don't come from the wild, but from breeding programs at other zoos, and this makes me wonder: If these creatures were born in a Zoo, and have lived their whole lives in a Zoo, do they even know they're in the Zoo?
Further: Might they experience anger, embarrassment, and depression if they were tossed back into the wild? Is that the point (abandonment or "release") when they'd realize they'd been in the Zoo?
And finally: What would make them angrier—realizing they'd been "kept" their entire lives, or no longer being "kept"?
At the Kids' Farm exhibit, a group of kid- and parent-zooers huddle around the miniature donkeys, watching them make half-hearted attempts to mount each other. It's toward the end of the day—4:30 p.m. or so—when I spot one of the keepers from the lion injection video. She opens the gate to the mini donkeys, with several lead lines/leashes in her hands.
One father says, "Hey, I wonder if you could bend the rules a little, just this once." He wants his kids to go into the exhibit and pat the donkeys, who have been smart enough to stay exactly one arm's length away from the viewing area.
It strikes me that this need for a special experience is what drives so much zooer behavior. Zooers are seeking out evidence that they are special human beings who can evoke unusual behaviors in animals. They want to pat the animal that no one else could pat, get the perfect photo—preferably one they can share with friends and family as evidence of their specialness.
I find this father annoyingly needy in his attempts to manipulate the keeper, so it pleases me when she says "No," and adds that she needs to bring them inside for the night. It further pleases me when she tells this family that she usually works with the carnivores. "My animals eat these animals," she says.
As she walks the donkeys into the barn, though, the kids and parents follow her as if she has a leash around them, too. And I'm pretty sure they cop a few pats.
If I have a spirit animal at the Zoo, it is the roseate spoonbill inside the Amazonia exhibit. The web site describes the spoonbill as: "a large wading bird with pink plumage and a distinctive spatulate bill," which is a nice enough description of its body, but doesn't quite capture its personality. I can't speak for all spoonbills, but the spoonbill upstairs in Amazonia is a fucking punk.
This exhibit is open—no fences between you and the creatures. Usually in these settings the animals don't step one webbed foot onto the human pathway; they know whose territory is whose. On my first encounter, though, the spoonbill swoops directly onto the path, nearly bitch-slapping me with one of its giant wings. It then begins to hobble along, moving freely as the sea of human feet parts.
A woman nearby says, "You were very brave. I would've screamed." But it didn't ever occur to me to scream. I moved out of the bird's way when I saw it coming in for a landing, yes, but if anything I was tempted to not move and let it hit me even harder—perhaps an attempt to create my own "special" Zoo experience.
There is much documentation of the spoonbill; zooers are thrilled it has broken the invisible barrier between humans and Amazonia by diving down onto the path. It is wonderful mayhem.
My second encounter with the spoonbill is even better, though. When I reach the end of the pathway, the bird is standing on a handrail that leads across a small bridge. Again, this punkass bird has no boundaries—a trait that bugs me in humans, but that I find tremendously appealing in Zoo creatures.
I'm not alone in this appreciation. There is a line forming to take pictures with the errant spoonbill. Zooers stand behind the pink bird and have loved ones snap shots while they grin and point.
The spoonbill has its back to the bridge, and at one point, as if to express its feelings for the entire human species, it takes one giant, gloopy dump on the bridge. The woman posing with the spoonbill can't decide how to react. She's still sort-of smiling for the camera, but a look of disgust is crossing pathways with that smile. "Oh, yuck. I don't want to take a picture with you," she says, but she doesn't sound firm in her revulsion, and she's still half-grinning stupidly at the camera.
Her friend takes the picture, and the woman laughs uncomfortably before exiting. Others in line follow her lead—stepping around the wet, white glop to smile and point. I step around these zooers, smiling and pointing at them in my head.
Now it hits me like a wing-slap to the face: Keepers and park planners are "keeping" zooers as well, and have put efforts into all kinds of enrichment for us, e.g. potty humor, animal docents, errant spoonbills, even the "otternet." Humans being a big part of what the Zoo keeps—the largest interactive exhibit (weather dependent).
This reminds me of the old "brain in a vat" scenario: How do I know I'm not just a brain in a vat on Mars, being fed some intricate computer program that makes me believe I'm on Earth, living this life? A professor of mine once said that you could learn you were a brain in a vat, and that this might involve the program malfunctioning in some way. Observing zooer behavior does bring that word to mind: malfunction. But I'm also left with the spooky feeling that, just like the zooers (and every creature here), I've been part of the Zoo's collection all along, and have just been too enriched to notice. Though, oddly enough, this realization itself is damned enriching.
I'd say it's hard to tell exactly when you've been in the Zoo too long, but there's this concrete thing that happens when you've been here too long, which is the Zoo police pull up in their truck, tell you the park has closed, and ask you which way you intend to leave.
The Zoo-officer's question surprises me at first; I've been staring at the beavers and have lost all sense of time. I point vaguely up the hill of the American Trail and say something like, "I think if I go over by the elephants? Then I can catch the path that leads to the main gates? Onto Connecticut?"
"Yes," he says. "That would be one way to do it."
When I get to the gates, several Zoo-licemen stand by their trucks, arms crossed, making sure I exit the park and don't scamper off into another exhibit. The Zoo gates are open just wide enough so I can be released.
One of my favorite books as a kid was Black Beauty: "My troubles are all over, and I am at home; and often before I am quite awake, I fancy I am still in the orchard at Birtwick, standing with my old friends under the apple trees."