Como Park Zoo and Perspective

Over lunch I stopped at the Como Park Conservatory…I forget what they call it now, it is named after some woman…Marjorie-someone, I think.  I like the conservatory, but I like it better when it is mostly empty.  Today it was not mostly empty.  So I figured I would stroll into the Como Park Zoo, a place I haven’t visited in years, many years.

For $2.00 — I gave $5.00, two seemed too cheap — you can see a lot, even on a windy November day.  The zoo also puts many things in perspective.  Zoos are strange places and I think I know why I haven’t been to one in a long time.

Among the first things I noticed is the old zoological building that is now closed and used as administrative offices.  I can’t say for sure, but what were once small doorways between an animal‘s inner and outer cell are now office windows.  Zoo administrators peer out into cages where lions and gorillas once did.  Seems fitting, in a way, but no lion ever had a key.

Seeing this building again was a bit of a thrill.  It recalled a lot of excitement experienced on trips to this zoo when I was a boy.  I remember the zoological building being well-shaded under large trees.  Those are mostly gone today.  I also remember the smells and activity; so many people that the animals at times were after thoughts.  When I was very young I thought for certain I would be lost in the crowd.  Watching mom and dad was more important than any caged animal.

I’m glad they saved the old zoo building, but it is lost now among all the new construction.  You can’t see the conservatory from the zoo anymore, for example; they’re almost like two different parks.  And I already mentioned the lost trees.

Everything looked more busy and new and I suppose the zoo is both more busy and new.  Even largely deserted the place looked busy.  Zoos have lost a lot of seriousness over the years, too.  Signs are less Victorian and academic and more Disneyesque.  And everything is sponsored by someone.  I doubt there’s a tree, a building, or a bench that is not placed in memory of someone.  Even some of the bricks on the sidewalk bear a sponsor’s name.  (I’ve mentioned Marjorie’s conservatory, too, haven’t I?)

That bothered me, in a way, but not so much.  It wasn’t until I started seeing animals that I thought about important things.  My first large animal was a grizzly bear in a large courtyard fancied up to look something like a river bed.  This poor bear paced very much the same as animals caged in the more jail-like cells of the old zoo building did 30 years ago.  Back and forth, back and forth.  That was it.  In the back of the courtyard another bear stood facing a blank corner in the wall, like a shamed schoolboy being punished for some trivial misdeed.  It depressed me.

Then a large brown bear — a giant bear — came out from an opening in the wall and walked directly toward the fence near me.  I haven’t any idea, but this bear must weigh hundreds of pounds.  It stopped at the fence, raised its massive head, and started sniffing the wind.  What do bears think when they sniff the wind?  What do they think when the smell nothing but people, candy, and car exhaust?

Seeing an animal like this so close and so huge is impressive, indeed.  I had to remind myself that it was in fact real and alive.  It had eyes like a dog, caramel colored eyes, and I wanted it to see me.  But the bear just looked straight ahead and inhaled the wind.  It depressed me.

Things like this certainly put everything in perspective.  I could be a bear in a zoo, but I’m not and I suppose that is a good thing.  I could be a bear eating Twinkies and bacon fat laid out by a hunter aiming to shoot me, too, but I am not and I’ll certainly say that is a good thing.  I wonder what it takes to be an animal in a zoo.  What are the odds?  I imagine it is a good thing the animals don’t think about that sort of thing.  They might go crazy wondering if they have been blessed by good fortune or cursed by bad.

I had to get away from the bears.

I walked quickly past the bison and reindeer.  They seemed perfect content, even happy.  The reindeer were busy knocking each other in the head.  That seemed like a good thing.  Bison?  No head knocking, however it is hard to think of an unhappy buffalo.  So off to see the big cats

I am a cat guy so I will naturally like big cats.  Bigger is better, right?  And I do like the big cats.  Unlike the bears, they seem a little less distressed than the bears, although it is hard to judge because half of them are fast asleep.

One amazing cat, dozing with his eyes sleepily fixed on me was the zoo’s snow leopard.  The cat was curled up in a corner of rocks in his cage.  He looked large, muscular, and thick.  But most impressively, he almost looked hidden.  In fact, he was hidden.  People walked by the cage without noticing the giant cat just a couple yards away.  I could see how easily a motionless giant cat like this could live mostly unseen and unknown.  Just a wonderful, beautiful cat…with wicked strong eyes.  Keep them in the wild!  Just imagine an animal like that in the wild…

The cats that are awake look mean and content, as they should be.  That’s a cat’s life.  I got up close to some of these, too, including an impressive cougar.  People hunt cougars…I cannot imagine why.  In fact, what’s the point of hunting any predator?  If you’re going to hunt these animals I think the game should be fair.  Go after them with a switch blade or something, not a high-powered rifle.

But back to the cats…

These, too, looked unreal.  The lions in particular could have been machines.  Enormous and otherworldly.  One of the sleeping lions opened his eyes as I was just feet away from him on the other side of his glass cage and looked at me.  I could not feel more fortunate.  This cat’s giant head came alive and two blazing eyes stared at me, like a horror film but real and impressive.  Then this dangerous beast rolled about on his back just as my 9-pound cat used to do before she went to the Other Side and started chasing birds in paradise.

I liked the cats even if I couldn’t help feeling sorry for them, too.  I was feeling just a little less depressed.

So why did I decide to go into the primate building?  I haven’t any idea.  Maybe I went it to see if the zoo still had a Mold-A-Rama machine, a machine that will make a plastic injection souvenir in the shape of an ape for you just as the zoo did back when I was a boy.  Guess what…they do.

Still, I should have known I that the primate building would not cheer me up.  Not only do you see depressed caged apes, but you get to read about how badly abused they are in the world.  These animals look more human and act more human that many of the people I need to deal with daily and there they sit in cells, sprawled out on concreted surrounded by concrete…and a bunch of gawkers smearing the glass on their only window to the outside.

I don’t like the ape house.  It really puts things in perspective.

And so when I walk outside on a bright November day I look up into the sky I wonder how truly insignificant it all my really be.  I hope it is insignificant, all of the things we do and cannot do and the luck that fate throws our way.  If we really are on an insignificant speck hurtling through the cosmos, who cares?  Right?  But just as I get angry when things go wrong, I can’t help but think other living things do just the same.  Maybe they have no sense of justice, however; maybe in that way the don’t care.  Maybe they have no sense of time and it matters not whether they walk a mile along a contiguous mile-long stretch of wilderness or walk it in a thousand paces back and forth.

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