It’s Off-Topic Tuesday again. Here’s a piece, re-edited, from an archive of columns I wrote for the newspaper at the University of Iowa in 1996, when I was a returning student there. More than any single piece I’ve ever written in my life, this one breaks my heart.
When I was a kid, I used to love going to the zoo. I grew up around cows, pigs, cats, and dogs, but elephants and zebras and emus and big whompin’ lizards were another thing altogether. Where I grew up, I had access to several good zoos, in Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago, and I went to all of ’em. Last weekend I went to Niabi Zoo, outside of Moline. . . . Niabi Zoo is one of the Quad Cities’ crown jewels, with a big renovation project underway garnering ample corporate and community support. So why did I get so depressed walking around this pleasant rural spot on a sunny weekend afternoon?
Niabi’s premier attraction is an elephant named Kathy Sha-Boom, an African elephant born in captivity who’s never spent a single second in her more than 30 years standing on anything other than concrete. “The African Elephant lives in wooded regions,” says the plaque on the fence outside Kathy’s habitat, but there’s not a single tree anywhere close by. Kathy’s getting new digs, provided the zoo can raise another $200,000. I didn’t see any trees on the architect’s sketch of the new place. Elephants don’t belong in Illinois.
Niabi has a fairly decent lion habitat for its male and two females, a rocky, grassy ravine bordered by trees. It’s also bordered by fences, which make hunting impossible, even though that’s what lions do. Lions don’t belong in Illinois.
Niabi has a beautiful tiger, whose caged area is about half the size of a baseball infield. When you consider that in the wild, tigers roam over a territory of hundreds of square miles, this is a little like you or me being permanently confined to a locker at the health club. Tigers don’t belong in Illinois.
Some people believe animals don’t think, but if you own one, even a couple of cats like mine, you know that they do. Maybe it’s not thinking in the sense of what I’m doing to write this or what you’re doing to read it, but it’s a mental process that allows them to make sense of their environment and survive in it. The sense of disconnection from every reality zoo animals are wired to recognize must be profound. It’s not a disconnection I’d wish to experience.
Niabi has a small-gauge train that runs around the perimeter of the zoo, and it runs past the habitat of three bobcats. One of the caretakers there told me, “We didn’t realize when we built this that it was so close to the railroad track. One of the bobcats is afraid of the train, so he never comes out of the shelter.” While we were there, the caretaker chased the bobcats into the open caged area so he could clean the shelter. We watched as an obviously terrified bobcat paced along the far fence of the enclosure, trying to find a place to hide. The train was nowhere close, but he knew it was coming back, and he was frightened. His natural habitat was just outside the fence—bobcats, it seems, do belong in Illinois—and if he could get away, he could reclaim his proper place in the ecological scheme of things. At the zoo, he’s trapped, forever. The caretaker’s job was quickly finished, and the bobcat went back inside, into a six-by-six-by-eight windowless concrete block building on this hot summer afternoon. Pretty soon, the train came back, full of happy riders, and I thought of that bobcat, his low-level horror flaring into higher-level panic every 10 or 15 minutes all summer, and on weekends in the fall, for the rest of his life.
I know there is educational value for everyone in seeing exotic animals, birds, and reptiles from faraway places. I know that zoos serve a purpose. Since the animals are already here, I’m not willing to let them out—I don’t believe the penalty for hitting into the woods on the golf course adjacent to Niabi should be being eaten by a lion, just as I don’t believe Kathy Sha-Boom should roam wild among the Henry County cornfields.
But I rode the train feeling sad inside. I think of the bobcat now and I still feel sad. And I don’t know what to do about it, except to say that I believe I’ve made my last trip to the zoo.