Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Zoo Logic

My daughter was born on Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, when the veil between the worlds is thin and all the ancestors can mingle in the here and now, in their spirited, diaphanous sort of way. Or so I like to think.

We wanted an outdoor outing to celebrate the day. I suggested we go to the zoo. Dragonstar happily agreed. There were new exhibits to see since we’d last gone, new habitats to admire. It would be a pleasant way to spend a fall afternoon. The zoo. Perfect. It was settled.

And then I got my November issue of The Sun, that remarkable magazine out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Its featured piece – a long essay in place of the usual interview – was by one of my favorite authors, Derrick Jensen. This was the title of the essay:

"Thought to Exist in the Wild: Awakening from the Nightmare of Zoos. "

Well, then. Not so settled, after all. And now I was faced with a dilemma. I could read the essay and let it ruin our plans -- for I know the power of Jensen's writings -- or I could set the magazine aside for a few days, take my daughter to the zoo, and read the essay sometime later, when it would no longer hold sway over my behavior.

Of course I sat down and read the essay. And of course it utterly ruined our plans.

If you see an animal in a zoo, you are in control. You can come, and you can go. The animal cannot. She is at your mercy; the animal is on display for you. In the wild, the creature is there for her own purposes. She can come, and she can go. So can you. Both of you can display as much of yourselves to the other as you wish. It is a meeting of equals. And that makes all the difference in the world.

Two pages later:

Zoos, like pornography, offer superficial relationships based on hierarchy, dominance, and submission. They depend on a detached consumer willing to observe another who may or may not have given permission to be the object of this gaze.

Yes, Jensen is provocative. And no, it wasn’t the first time I’d found myself troubled by the idea of zoos and what Jensen calls their “world in a box” approach. No matter how pleasant the new “rainforest habitat” at our local zoo may appear, it isn’t real, it has borders, it holds its creatures captive. And no one who loves animals can really enjoy seeing them in cages.

But here's the thing: in reading Jensen’s essay when I did, I was able to consider all this before I actually paid our money and went inside our local zoo, whereas I am usually struck by sadness only after arriving and walking around and seeing all the creatures who would never be free. Call me a slow learner, call me self-absorbed, but at least this time I got the information I needed when I needed it: when it could actually influence my actions.

That is progress.

Will our going or not going to the zoo affect the lives of those creatures? Of course it will, in the same way the departed ancestors can affect us, if we’re willing to pay attention when they slip through the veil and join us for tea and sugar cookies. (Or birthday cake. ) When we withdraw our support from the things that hurt our souls – be it zoos or compulsory schools or the Bush administration – those things eventually lose their potency. And when we redirect our energies toward what is life-affirming and free, the world is enlivened, re-enchanted.

Dragonstar has decided she wants to go letterboxing instead. That’s more like it. We love a good treasure hunt. I just hope all the ancestors will fit in the car with us, and that at least one of them is good at reading a map.

1 comment:

  1. Happy Birthday dragonstar!
    I hope your letterboxing adventure was fun.


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