(Originally published on MOLI, 3/20/8)
The other day, for his fifth birthday, I took my son Cole to the Miami Metrozoo. We make this trip at least once a year together. The first time we were there, he was barely walking, but he toddled right up to the big black pot-bellied pig at the petting zoo and looked straight in its hairy face, in love. Another time, he was wooed by a cockatoo on a trainerâ€™s arm. This year, he had a mystic experience with a one-eyed turkey.
Cole knelt to pet the tomâ€™s feathers ever so gently. The turkey would puff up, shake its tail, make a little purr-like noise (yes, I suppose it was a gobble), push close to my son, and look at him intently with his one good eye. With wrinkly red skin covering their face and dripping from their beaks like molten plastic, turkeys are at least as weird-looking as pot-bellied pigs. But Cole, my wild manic birthday boy, seemed to have connected to this oneâ€™s soul. He was ever so docile and at one with this odd creature, as if it were the most beautiful thing in the world.
Zoos are places of beauty and brutality. We visit them to see the animals we love up close — to pay homage even. Yet, watching a polar bear pace or a lion stare apathetically at a noisy crowd, itâ€™s impossible not to also realize we are bearing witness to cruelty, to vestigial colonialism — to nature trapped, shipped far from its homeland, and held captive. Thatâ€™s part of why the public was so enthralled by the story of that tiger mauling a man in San Francisco in December: Even before we knew the drunk had taunted the beast, we guessed exactly where the killer was coming from.
In a PETA world, zoos are coming to grips with their own antiquated morality. A growing number have vowed not to raise any more elephants. (These very sensitive creatures need miles to roam; their psychic imbalance is a barometer of Earthâ€™s peril.) In most zoos, old iron cages have long been replaced by lush landscapes; sometimes, it can be hard for visitors to find the damn animals!
With the advent of the Discovery Channel, or National Geographicâ€™s 24-hour African watering hole camera, we donâ€™t need zoos to show us far reaches of the world, like we once did. Still, as someone who wants to raise her child to be something more than a screen baby, I take him every year. After all, there are some things you can only learn from life unmediated and unedited. To really get a sense of how black and large a giraffeâ€™s tongue is, you have to feed it green leaves. Education, rescue, and conservation are the core mission and the future of zoos. The disabled turkey was probably lucky to be sheltered here rather than on a farm. The Miami Seaquarium has a tank full of manatees too maimed by boat propellers to survive on their own.
â€œLook how long those birdsâ€™ legs are!â€ Cole marveled at the flock of pink flamingos that greet visitors to the Miami zoo. â€œAnd look how short that oneâ€™s are!â€ he said, pointing to a duck.
â€œYes; isnâ€™t it amazing how animals come in so many different shapes and sizes?â€ I said pedantically; I know a teachable moment when I see one.
â€œOh yeah! And look how much beak that bird has!â€ Cole exclaimed, gesturing at one of the wild ibises that choose to make the zoo, rather than the nearby Everglades, their home.
I wonder how my son will feel next Thanksgiving. Will he remember his friend at the zoo, and feel differently about our turkey meal? That, too, could be a zooâ€™s mission in the 21st century. Even PETA would approve.