Perambulating the Bounds

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Lost World


Visiting the Zoo is a depressing experience. This still comes as a surprise to me. I took such delight in zoos when I was a kid. I knew my way around the National Zoo well, got to the point where I could identify nearly every bird there. 

I went back this weekend, to something irreversibly diminished and damaged. In part it comes from getting older. The Zoo seemed so big back then, endless in the new things to see. As an older, larger person, everything is easier to comprehend. I also think the zoo has reduced the number of exhibits. Back in my childhood days, zoos were just beginning to create naturalistic environments for animals, and the National Zoo still had many locked up in row after row of cages. You can fit in more animals that way. Now that they need to give the animals more room to stretch out, there's room for fewer of them. Also, in the intervening years there has been more awareness of the stress on cold climate animals living in such a warm places. A lot of places have gotten rid of their polar bears. I think the National Zoo did that.

Zoos are suspect now. If you’ve paid any attention you know that no zoo provides a great environment for most of the animals. All animals have their habitats and natural patterns of roaming and movement. No way you can catch that in an enclosure.

Habitat brings us to the worst part. Every exhibit, in the interests of education and honesty, describes what has happened to the natural range of the animal on display. And nearly every one is in danger of disappearing in the wild. Indian Elephants, tigers, Central American amphibians. There are so few wild places left, government preserves hold on tenuously and suffer incursions, mysterious diseases sweep from one end of a continent to another, and introduced species drive out the old ones. The exhibits at zoos always talked about conservation in my memory, but somehow back then, back in my childhood, it seemed to be a matter of identifying cases that need attention and getting people to work on those. And there were heroic people who would eventually prevail, in spite of any setbacks. Now seems like we've got a massive series of last ditch efforts across species, geography and ecosystems. I’m not sure anyone believes in restoring balance, only in arks like the seed vault on Spitsbergen in Norway.  Gather a breeding stock of each thing that exists and try to keep it safe, map its genome, hold on for who knows what, and hope and pray that events—climatic, political, social—don’t overtake the effort.  

A Zoo visit today tolls mourning, for what was lost and what seems impossible to avoid losing.

When I visited as a child, in the 60s and 70s, I saw the zoo as a storehouse of wonders and a gateway to a much larger world where these animals lived in many places I hoped to visit.

At the time I made those visits, the forces were in motion that robbed the world of these places. Modernization, economic integration, the creation of a universal capitalist market and its unrelenting demands to realize economic potential in everything that contained it. Technology and human population too great for anything delicate—like an ecosystem, or a social system—to resist.  And chaos generated by all of that.

That pleasure of discovery proved to be innocent and ignorant. And age dispels some ignorance. At the end of the day knowing is stronger. But maybe the breaking of illusions which inevitably accompanies age makes up the bigger part of the mournfulness.

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