Friday, July 2, 2010

Zoo Wanderings

This week we’ve had a reprieve from hot and muggy. In Birdland it’s cool and delicious. The rain has held off too, so that I can once again do my favorite end of the day chore—watering the islands of flowers scattered around the yard. It’s my evening meditation and gives me a chance to notice what’s about to bloom, which bed needs weeding, what work needs to be continued tomorrow.

Last weekend we took a day trip up to Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. Ellis had a chance to participate in the Youth Conservation Congress, a gathering of 100 Illinois high school students to discuss environmental issues. I had a chance to walk around the zoo for a day. My feelings about zoos are complicated, partly colored by my childhood experiences. I remember a dark building with large pens with bars, a fence wisely keeping human visitors at a safe distance. In the corridor lined with these pens on each side, each one held a different species of big cat, pacing, pacing, pacing. It smelled like an intense cocktail of barnyard and litter box. Even as a young child I was aware of the concentrated tension these huge animals embodied. At random intervals one of the cats would let loose an agonized roar to echo through the tiled building. Outside the animals had yards, fortified with concrete and steel, but no more comforting or natural than the cages inside. No wonder the big cats paced. No wonder the elephants rocked back and forth in a dreary dance.

The scene at Brookfield Zoo this weekend was much more agreeable. If the habitats weren’t exactly wild, they were more natural and pleasant. Here the big cats had a spacious environment, with a variety of plants and terrain. An Amur Leopard lies on a rock, the sun filters through leaves to further dapple its coat; we can see for ourselves the wisdom of evolution. The big cat exhibit is called “Fragile Hunters,” and I spend a good hour walking quietly through the meandering path, viewing these animals from various angles and reading about the struggles of the predatory lifestyle. Predators get a bad rap. In Birdland I try to remember how necessary the coyotes are, even when I lose some chickens. The “Fragile Hunters” exhibit promoted the understanding of not only the important part predators play in a balanced ecosystem, but how difficult a hunter’s life is. I began to feel something like empathy for the majestic feline sunning himself. By the time I got to the rainforest habitats, I was beginning to understand zoos in a new way. The educational plaques asked us to notice the musky smells, interesting, but not overwhelming. Birds flew casually overhead, and we heard the chatter of various species. A wide variety of plants, some of them real, provided perches and climbing opportunities for the animals. Maybe a while back zoos were mostly curiosities or amusements for the public, the animals studied mostly by zoologists and biologists. In just a few generations, the mission has changed to educate the public on the diversity of species and the fragility of our world. In the text-rich walk from one environment to another we were invited to understand the importance of the interconnecting web of life on this planet, its delicate balance, and the impact of human activity. The Swamp exhibit took us to an abandoned sawmill, the remnants of a real-life ghost town that dried up after they had cut all the Cypress trees. We view Packrats, Black Widow Spiders, and other wildlife that moves in when people move out. We read about the sad history of the damaged swamp, discover ways we can help slow this destruction, for example, not purchasing that fancy red Cypress mulch. (I never do, mostly because it is expensive and comes in plastic bags. Also I can fill the bed of my truck with mulch from the Urbana Landscape Recycling Center for the price of a few of those bags. Still I was glad to discover the connection between our purchasing choices and the destruction of a vibrant ecosystem.)

As I said, my feelings about zoos are complex. As natural as these environments may look, they are not natural, but neither is Birdland. Brookfield Zoo sends important messages about the dangers of plastic in the Oceans, yet they still have vestiges of the zoos of my childhood—in nearly every section one of those Mold-O-Rama machines, that will press out a plastic dinosaur as you watch for a few coins. Where were the educational signs describing the impact of those? I think the modern zoo’s mission to educate and preserve justifies the keeping of animals, but we always have room for improvement, don’t we?

Advance in Beauty; Progress in Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in the complexities of life.


  1. I really appreciated and enjoyed your article. I feel the same way about zoos. These days, it's not possible to let all of these animals live "in the wild." There isn't enough "wild" left for them. Like you, I feel a sense of relief to see the big cats having an interesting environment with room to wander and prowl and even run. I'm looking forward to my next visit to Brookfield Zoo.

  2. Thanks, Scotti. Yes, I think another important part of a modern zoo's mission is participation in an international network of zoos to study endangered animals and their environments. Because of disappearing habitat, these zoo networks may be the only chance to save some animals from extinction. Of course, that won't do any good without reclaiming of habitat, but it's a start.

    They also have lovely gardens all over Brookfield, and I saw a sign that said, "What is a Browsing Garden?" These have a variety of edible (for various animals) plants that the zookeepers will cut and offer to the animals, as a way to keep their diets varied, balanced, interesting, and natural. I came away very impressed. It seems that Brookfield, at least, views animals holistically.

  3. Sorry, but I don't understand your discomfort with zoos. Animals in them are better cared for than anywhere else. They are well fed, protected, mentally stimulated, and given great medical care. Almost all species live longer in zoos. Does it bother me that animals are not "free"? No, because they are animals, not people. They don't know the difference, as long as they are cared for, fed, and given a chance to reproduce.

    The Brookfield Zoo is one of the nation's best zoos. Chicagoans are fortunate to have it.

    Allen Nyhuis, Coauthor: America's Best Zoos

  4. Actually, I agree that the animals are well cared for at Brookfield. Clearly people attend to the animals' needs on multiple dimensions. I was disappointed however, in the discrepancy between the message about human impact (with detailed information about the effects of plastic) and the hawking of cheap plastic toys and bottled water in vending machines throughout the zoo.