August 23, 2017
HONEY LET’S GO to the zoo,” The Wife blurted out one recent Friday morning, more a command then a suggestion.
“The zoo?” I inquired, rather bemused. “None of the kids is home. And even if they were, aren’t they kind of old for the zoo?”
“No, not with the kids. Just you and me.”
Now that’s a rather awkward idea, I thought, scratching my head.
Unless you need to entertain small children, unless you have visitors from abroad, unless you secretly want to go into veterinary medicine, who goes to the zoo on a blistering day in the middle of August? It’s like going to watch a pre-Hanukka play at one of the local nursery schools even though you don’t have any kids enrolled.
But I kept all those thoughts penned up inside. Instead, with Simon and Garfunkel’s old tune “At the Zoo” playing in my head – “Something tells me it’s all happening at the zoo/ I do believe it, I do believe it’s true” – I consented.
“But only as long as I can get a popsicle,” I smirked.
And so, just like that, The Wife and I, sans kids, spent our prized Friday morning time together not sipping coffee in an air-conditioned cafe, but rather walking the hilly paths of Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo on one of the hottest days of the summer seeking to see whether, as the song says, “The monkeys stand for honesty, giraffes are insincere, and the elephants are kindly but they’re dumb …”
THE WIFE’S zoo suggestion did not catch me completely by surprise. Married for more than 30 years, I’m well aware of her fondness for zoological gardens. In fact, on trips to far-flung places such as Finland and Australia, we’ve made it a point to search out the local zoo for exotic animals we would never see at home.
But still, going to the Jerusalem zoo without a compelling reason on a Friday summer morning seemed a bit odd. And not only did it seem odd, but at first it felt odd, since The Wife and I were among only a handful of adults without children in tow among the thousands of people who also decided to go animal watching that day. The only other people above 18 without kids were religious couples on shidduchim (blind dates).
Going to the zoo without children is like going bowling alone, or eating by yourself in an expensive French restaurant.
People look at you, they throw sympathetic glances in your direction, and then they wonder what your sad story is.
“Look happy,” I told The Wife as we strolled from exhibit to exhibit. “Keep smiling so people think we’re normal. Laugh a little.”
PERSONALLY, I found it difficult to smile continuously for the entire three hours we spent gazing at the lemurs, penguins and blue-throated macaws. And this had nothing to do with the heat or the hundreds upon hundreds of often rambunctious and unruly kids.
No, there is something that depresses me about zoos; even spacious, green, beautiful ones like the one in Jerusalem.
First is the problem I often have with my fellow zoo-goers, especially the rambunctious unruly kids, or – more precisely – with their parents.
I’m big on following rules; chalk it up to my Midwestern American upbringing. The sign says “keep off the grass” – and I would rather walk a mile out of my way than tread on soil not to be trodden upon. The sign says “don’t feed the animals” – and a polar bear could mouth the words “please feed me” and I would never dream of throwing it some popcorn.
But not at this zoo. Nope, here people interpret the “don’t feed the animals” signs as subliminal suggestions to go ahead and feed the animals.
In one of the primate displays, some poor monkey was nibbling on a half-eaten pita tossed in his direction. That monkey will need an iron stomach to survive all the food thrown its way on any given day by kids whose parents let them do whatever they please. I stood glaring at those parents as much as I did watching the monkeys, and I found that depressing.
Secondly, no matter how nice the zoo is, no matter how well kept and clean and even roomy the display areas are, I can’t help thinking that the kangaroo hopping around must feel cramped and in need of more space, or that the eagle resting on a branch should be able to soar way above the net of his artificial habitat. Conservationism or no conservationism, looking at cooped-up animals has a tendency to bring me down.
And the final depressing element is the written explanations that accompany each display. Sometimes the less I know, the better.
For instance, did I really need to know that the cute black-and-white monkey I was gazing at known as the cotton-top tamarin, that once proud denizen of the tropical forests of northwestern Colombia, is actually on the list of the world’s critically endangered species?
It seemed like every other animal we saw in the zoo was either critically endangered, already extinct in the wild, or in immediate danger of extinction, all because of hunting and the clearing away of the world’s forests. That knowledge sucked some of the joy out of the overall zoo experience. I mean, I’ve got enough to worry about, without adding endangered species to that list.
On the way back home, my daughter called and was surprised to hear how her parents spent their morning.
“Bored, eh?’ she said. Then she asked, “So how was it?”
“Great,” I replied. “Lovely grounds. And if not for some obnoxious people and the cooped-up animals whose relatives are all on the way to extinction, it would have been a perfect day. But at least I got a popsicle.”