The Big Storm of the day before (30 November) marked the first time in its sixty-six-year history bad weather closed the San Diego Zoo. Fifteen large trees blew down. Several animals panicked, crashed into concrete walls and wire fences. The Arabian oryx “yesterday had a shade tree, and today, a log,” the tour bus driver told passengers. “The oryx are delighted. They've been chewing eucalyptus leaves all day."
No zebras came out. Big cats, including the Himalayan snow leopard, were shut away. Except for a lone polar bear, all bears were shut in. The tree kangaroos' tree snapped. They stayed in. Giraffes were locked in the giraffe barn. “If a tree goes down when the giraffes are out front, they’ll go bananas and bolt . . . over, or into the wall. A lot of characteristics, like the ability to move instantaneously," the driver told riders, among whom were soldiers from the Taiwanese Army, “don't do animals in the zoo a whole lot of good."
During midmorning of 1 December, weather came on like a jungle fever. In fits of shivering, recurring waves of storm continued to trouble the zoo. Shakes of racking, chilly wind carried rain, a rain that popped out like cold sweats. Between shudders and shivers that shook eucalyptus leaves off branches, that skittered leaves down sidewalks, a smooth sheet of flat calm (that offered, each time, to last forever) gave off odors: leaf and flower petal, mulch, popcorn, wet beast. This calm stretched tight as a drumhead between wind and rain squalls, and sounds bounced off its halcyon membrane, phosphoresced against ears like champagne bubbles, popping, will fizzle on noses, surprising and startling: quacking, clicking, hissing from ducks, guinea hens, peacocks that, in a rotogravure of bright feathers, shifted along the spongy earth, taking worms.
‘‘Man is the animal,” German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote, ‘‘who knows he must die.” On the night of 1 December, in Salt Lake City, Barney Clark, a sixty-one-year-old dentist from Seattle, had been rushed into surgery. The Jarvik Model-7 aluminum-and-plastic heart, powered by pulses of compressed air, was implanted in Clark’s chest.
Clark’s heart transplant flung a landscape-chilling shadow, a black scarf, backward over the stormy day of 1 December. The TV newscast from Salt Lake City hummed basso-continuo through memories of the day. This deep thrumming resonated through the whole body. It vibrated cilia, burred and buzzed like dentist Clark’s drill. The cells shook like leaves. Above the rapidly throbbing bass, suspended in the day’s memories like a hummingbird treading air at the lip of hibiscus, was this further item from the broadcaster’s script: “The Marquis de Sade died on this day in 1814 in an asylum.” In memory, this shadow, this heartnews, stuck with de Sade’s squill from history, mixes with storm, fallen leaves, and is stammered out in hideous leitmotifs, rapid-repeating attacks of godawful Weltschmerz. This Bad News, coming up from behind and reiterated, with wind and rain, after each slough of calm met, head-on, a sinking sense of mortality’s irremediability.
All this became compounded from a day at the zoo. The compound was a mix of frustration with zoo, with self, and intensified as the day went on. The cage of the self would not open. The zoo . . . although barless . . . stayed behind bars; and self-imprisoned, increasingly tense, the longing to be at one with beast increased, a longing to get loose, for a six-pack of Budweiser and kick-ass rock and roll.
But the heartnews was still twelve hours away; and the wind blew. Clark was not scheduled for surgery until the next day, and only because his blood pressure dropped perilously low, and his own once-for-a-lifetime, disease-scarred heart developed a rapid irregular ventricular tachycardia that turned his skin sky-blue, cyanotic, did the surgical team (that played Ravel’s monomelodic, repetitive “Bolero” on a tape recorder during the eight-hour operation) take Clark in early, on Wednesday night.
Khaki-uniformed and civilian-dressed zoo employees hurried out of rain and cold wind into the warm, ivory-painted, brick-walled staff dining room. They ate eleven o’clock lunches of roast beef slices and brown gravy (meat in the belly; meat on the mind; meat in the cages). “Have you done your Christmas shopping yet?” asked the gray-suited man across the wood-laminate table. White, sectioned paper plates became ashtrays, gravy sopping cigarette butts, soaking down tobacco embers. The lavender-suited woman laughed, said, “Hey, is it Christmas Eve yet?”
You tell me why, what, keeps my stub-toed Frye boot from kicking, jabbing the open-toed lavender sandals, nylon-encased toes; what stays the hand from grabbing the gray-suit lapels, from turning that wood-laminate table over; what keeps the mouth, tongue from yowling, screaming, howling; what holds a person back from breaking out, breaking up, breaking loose. Those paper cups of coffee with Creamora stirred lazily in; those paper plates holding blobs of beefed-up broths of Beast, gelatinizing and spiked with Viceroy butts, looking like a half-crown of thorns: they would have slipped, slid right onto the endlessly same vinyl-tiled floor. The khaki-dressed guard, hips rolling lasciviously in tight trousers and belly girdled, girded by the three-inch wide belt, would grab my arms at the wrist, grip the delicate bones, crunch them up behind the small of the back, growl, “What in hell are you doing, lady? Huh? HUH?” Don't tell me, “Fear of incarceration”; or that “good manners,” consideration. Valium, or eons of civilization keep that set of nyloned-in toes unkicked. Don’t. “Philosophy,” Wittgenstein wrote, “unties knots in our thinking; hence its results must be simple; but philosophizing has to be as complicated as the knots it unties.”
As long as two million years ago the hunt already offered more to hunters than food and skins. Hairy, shaggy votives, oblations, thank-offerings, eucharists, expiations, scapegoats were slaughtered, flayed, burned, lifted up, adored. Hearts and livers and chitterlings were ritually shared, chewed, and swallowed. Animals mediated between sublunary and superlunary worlds, praising and evoking, thanking, gladhanding, subduing in every savannah, thorn forest, woodland, grassland, rain forest, ocean beach, mountain range, mountaintop, lake front, and chaparral.
Nine-month-old goat writhes, mews, bleats. Stretched across steaming altar stones, flesh heaves under the priest’s blessing. The acolyte has scrubbed the dainty, pointed black hooves with pads of fruiting grass and water, from the river gurgling, foaming below the tree-canopied hill. The hooves glimmer. In the gray half-dark of early dawn, the flame crackles on fiery knots gripped by twelve adolescent catechumens. Lightshine outlines the goat’s gaze. His neck, no thicker than a wrist, arches back. His shuddering snakes in, around, the boys’ higher-pitched birdlike aieeees. Then, the first breeze of dawn and voices rise, leaves shatter, and the little spine shakes as the priest severs the carotid. The reflected eyes roll. Bowels go. The penis stiffens. The acolyte, goat-smell on his palms and bare, fuzzhaired chest, shivers in the kneedeep grass, dew stinging his bug bites.
Animals make intercession between man and his origin. The tree kangaroos’ tree would still have fallen had you not been there. But that white goat, had you not been there, would not have lain across granite, nor the boy — his testicles drawn up in the early dawn cold — have scrubbed black hooves. Nor would you be at the zoo.
Diogenes of Sinope walked one morning in the Fourth Century, B.C. through the calamitously noisy agora in Athens (to which he had been exiled). Hawkers competed, and shoppers wedged, elbowed up to stalls of heaped cloth, garlics, amphoras of oil, ready-to-kill tethered lambs. Dins of commerce stung Diogenes like black flies, produced a cacophonous lick of pinpoint agonies along the harp of his inner ear. Standing in the mid-morning sunshine, his very being seemed to drain from head to heart to sandaled feet, like warm bath water.
How many moments passed in this ontologic eclipse. Diogenes would say later, “I never knew.” The ammoniac scent of lamb piss, like a smelling salt, brought back his name, his purpose, to his flesh. “That lamb,” he pointed to a hobbled beast, “is closer to reality than this.” A sweep of hand indicated sellers and shoppers.
“But how else could we live, except according to the custom of our times?” Diogenes’ protégé asked.
“By the laws of nature. Go back to them,” Diogenes said, lamb piss smell detonating like a broken-open popper, vibrating hairs in his flaring nostrils. “Abandon all that man added to nature, everything man invented or discovered. Live like the dogs live.”
Diogenes undressed, strode out into the Athenian countryside, dug a shallow hole and let his bowels luxuriously, inch-by-inch move out a fecal coil, and near where whorls of cypress hung off lichenous hillsides, Diogenes found a discarded wine bottle the size of a modern-day packing box, and took up housekeeping within the green glass. He lapped water from ditches, as cattle do, took his foods raw, and women where he found them, and from behind.
Diogenes-the-Dog, he came to be called. From the Greek, for dog . . . kunos . . . came his appellation, and that of his followers: Cynics. Diogenes is one of the first men listed by the scholar George Boas among those from whom Boas in 1933 coined the term “theriophiliac,” meaning. Boas says, “those who admire animals, and their ways.”
Gregory of Nyssa, born 650 years after Diogenes, and the first person to use the simile of the fishhook by which the Devil was baited, reflects the change, on an officially codified level in the years after Christ, of man's view of animals. “The animals’ state of nature,” Gregory wrote, “is indeed pathetic. What is more pitiful than to be deprived of reason? And yet they have no awareness of their misery, and they pass their lives in a sort of pleasure. The horses prance, the bull raises the dust, the boar’s back bristles, puppies play and calves frolic. We can see each species of animal expressing their pleasure in different ways. Yet if they had an inkling of the gift of reason, they would not pass their dumb and miserable lives in pleasure.”
Gregory’s gold-and-cobalt-blue illuminated notes mark the effort, underway on an official level, to quash man’s fleshly instincts in order that his ethereal qualities might be forced heavenward, ahead of schedule . . . precisely as florists force lilies to bloom in time for Easter. The church doctors encouraged a rapid rise from Adam to angel by giving their blessing to an anorexia of the instincts while at the same time spoon-feeding hormones to the spindly soul. The Dark Ages was thus lit by a greenhouse effect. On the books, at least, it was a bad time for animals . . . for the animal within.
It got worse almost a thousand years later and a thousand miles away in the village of Montaillou, a Pyrenees town near the border between France and Spain. Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Palmiers (1318-1325), became determined to bum the last of the Albigensian heretics. To this end he supervised a rigorous Inquisition, taking depositions which still survive.
Bernard Benet informed the Inquisitor, “Guillaume Bélot brought Guillaume Authé the heretic to the place where my father, Guillaume Benet, lay ill. It was in the part of the house where cattle slept." Montaillouans did not shave, bathe, or swim. Delousing was an ingredient of intimacy. The heretical woman, Guillemette Benet, who shut her oxen up in the living room after they came home from ploughing, was sitting on the flat roof being deloused by her daughter when Vuissane Testaniere passed by, and reported this conversation to the Inquisitor: “Guillemette was asking, ‘How can people manage to bear the pain when they are burning at the stake?’ To which her daughter replied, ‘Ignorant creature! God takes the pain upon himself, of course!’ ’’
Descartes, in the 1600s, sat before his wood stove and came out with, Cogito, ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am.’’ “Descartes,” art critic John Berger writes, “internalized, within man, the dualism implicit in the human relation to animals. In dividing absolutely body from soul, he bequeathed the body to the laws of physics and mechanics, and, since animals were soulless, the animal was reduced to the model of a machine.”
A century later, in 1781, the composer Mozart is faced with his father’s disapproval of his choice of brides. Ingenuously, young Mozart uses the Cartesian argument as a mode for frightening his father, telling Papa Mozart that it’s better to marry a woman disliked by the family than to burn.
Imagine him in sepia, brown-tones, derby curling upward around the brim, wrinkles cutting his cheeks. Imagine his beard, white, a snow-frosted spade covering all but the tips of his cloak’s velvet collar. The cloak is buttoned and his hands rest inside its warmth, laying across his belly, comforting the writhing intestines with rhythmic pats, mothering his pain.
He is being photographed. He arranges himself to be seen. He imagines himself, in the portrait, not as he believes he is but as he wishes to be remembered.
He paces the figured carpet in his study late at night. Upstairs, his family sleeps. He hears the finches. We call them, now, “Darwin’s finches.” Imagine them in sepia tones, on the islands of the Galapagos Archipelago, stippled with olives, grays, blacks. The beaks are in sizes from small to large, and of varying shapes.
Home again in England, considering those finches, Darwin added this sentence to his journal: “Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago one species had taken and modified for different ends.” To his friend, the botanist J.D. Hooker, Darwin said, when On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was finally published in 1859: “l am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing to a murder) immutable.” Since that date, the horizon against which men lived would continue to look, apparently, just the same. But for an increasing number of persons who considered Darwin’s reflections, the flesh of man, the meat itself, had suddenly become tainted. The lump of clay that God had fashioned into his own image, had blown his breath into, was, after all, only a hairy, foul-smelling, knuckle-dragging, lusty, inchoate ape.
On that intermittently stormy late morning at the zoo, wind blowing cold, carrying birds’ chirps, twitters, and phew-eees; and mulch, dank, rain-soaked, wet leafrot odors thick as fudge and calling, drawing your senses forward, you know there surely is a reason you find yourself in front of those peccaries, who are rooting and snorting in the dark mud. Barney Clark’s heartlessness still in the future; the lavender-suited woman’s Christmas shopping still to be done; and all this is still in the future, flung backward onto one December, now, all here and all there, behind glass, behind moats, behind fences ... the fur, fins, thick hair, and scales, feet, hands, noses, eyes, stomachs, lungs, hearts, breasts, sexual organs, kidneys, knees transmogrified (across eons of beasts adapting and modifying, species you will never see) into your own modified meatiness (meat stacked, century after century, atop meat), hauling, carrying upright, on two legs! Your past.
You cherish your fleshy heritage. You don’t find it difficult to agree with old man Huxley that an ape is often preferable to a bishop, and doesn’t all that meat feel good, as you think of yourself with roots, embedded in five million years of steaks-and-ribs?
You’re hardly able, though, to look. Since Descartes, since Galileo, since Newton’s mechanics, into the increasingly noisy and speeded-up years of the Industrial Revolution, animals begin more and more to be observed . . . wistfully, nostalgically. The rub is, there’s no rub. Detached from interiors of homes, from nearby barns and courtyards, from ethical and theological preoccupations, the animal becomes a distant object (within yourself, still ... as Mozart's father had once suggested to young Amadeus . . . to be subdued, tamped down, strangled), even exotic and now endangered . . . and, becomes too only another dry taxonomical stored fact; or, inherited jitters, expressed along the autonomic nervous system, about mice, snakes, rats, loons, spiders, hyenas, wolves. Animals decrease in numbers, and kind, on the everyday landscape, moving out of fields and off roads, onto factory-farms that clack with the speed and efficiency of assembly lines, into houses as pets (in the Sixteenth Century, the word pet still referred to a “lamb, raised by hand’’), into zoos and menageries as exhibits . . . “mementoes,’’ John Berger calls them, “of the outside world.’’
In the official canons of cultural life, the anthropomorphic string between man and beast strains and weakens. The beast as “messenger and promise’’ gives way to methods of phenomenological observation that, by eliminating the human equation, create precise, accurate descriptions of natural, animal, meat-and-biology events. The mythic beast of the mind— unicorn, gargoyle, dragon — nixed . . . falls off churches and takes up homes in cartoons and comic books. The miraculous deic interventions — zilched, Xed out of mind, and limited by the new rules of experimentation and inference — become sleek, uncluttered, objective, factual descriptions of the beast.
You're hardly able to look. A ripping-open of clouds lets slits of light through the overcast. Staring into the bison's big brown Bette Davis eyes, you think you should feel passionately with, about, for animals; and are surging with sugary sentiment at gilt-edged memories of nativity-painting bovines and belching at the hot dog breaking down in your stomach acids. You are past Darwin, post-Darwin, fallen King of the evolutionary heap.
Pick yourself up, look backward a moment to de Sade’s calculus of ritual cruelties, flipping through his journal ecrits, each amorous experiment with biologically induced anguish as neatly chronicled as in any laboratory, you see de Sade's need to rouse himself . . . and you . . . with pain, with punishment, comes logically from Descartes’ unsettling woodstove pronouncement, Gregory of Nyssa’s pre-emptory mortal’s grab for the immortal soul. De Sade's albeit extreme response to these parings of body from soul, from mind — flesh-and-five-senses as numbed as if Barney Clark had injected Procaine from head to heart to toe — make sense. De Sade’s need to see your blood run, apertures pried open, turning your body’s secrets inside-out, is only simpleminded roguishness then. This roguishness is an anguish born of philosophy and applied to harnessed buttocks with an aristocratish whiplash. De Sade’s nipple-pinchers are just random pieces in a parlor game for rainy afternoons compared to the carnival of tortured meat coming up: a Mardi Gras clatter of agonized amino-acid strings of DNA pulled tight-to-breaking and sounding out screams higher even that a dog’s whistle, above Buchenwald, Ravensbruck, Babi Yar, Dachau, that cataclysm as a race became beasts, soulless flesh, its skins stretched for lampshades, and the light, twinkling through pores, now picks out once-distant figures on the far walls of dark rooms, and we enjoy evenings, by lamplight.
“Everyone’s got a mean streak,” the crackerbarrel pragmatist suggests. After World War II we are no longer so sure where we stand in relation to animals. The war opens up geographies, like veins, alters European imperialisms and white-is-right dogmatisms all through Asia and Africa and leaves us reeling, dizzy. The Einsteinian vision of relativity, as much as Darwin’s finches (or more?? . . . tell me), knocks the back wall of our minds away. With this new dethronement from our seat on the human/ historical meridian, our fall from polar-north absolutism, our orthodoxies built on an assured space-and-time for-sureness, a dizziness, vertigo, syncope, and then nausea takes over. The body, then, is only habits, lumps, bunions, ingrown toenails, objectless libidinal longings, obsessions that center down in mouths and sexual organs and hands and play like a stuck record, cancers and precancers: a scaffolding. . . stinking of chemically deodorized fear-sweats built up in poreless dacrons, orlons, miracle fabrics that cover the vaguely guilty conscience. Contingency-freaked, gun-shy wanderers, whom Sartre catches in moments of observing one another drowning in shame, the bond between us an honor among thieves, you tell me why, at the zoo, it is almost impossible to look, to let the outside in. You tell me what keeps that Frye boot on its own side of the table, that stays the hand, that keeps the exhausted, habituated, always liminally provoked flesh from splitting its seams and yowling.
Americans keep forty million dogs, forty million cats, fifteen million cage birds, ten million other pets. The household pet continues to multiply rather than dissipate. In the pet’s over-bred crookedness and increasingly eccentric exterior anatomy, it is withdrawn with us into our urban and suburban cages. The pet is isolated from others of its species, fed with canned foods, as bound from natural movements as T’ang dynasty maidens, and conditioned through its dependence on an owner to jitter right along with him or her as habitually, as slavishly as a Pavlov-trained junkie subliminally echoes the moves of his or her connection. The reciprocity between owner and pet is only a series of behaviors, “tricks” the pet learns for a bowl of water and chow. It’s one of those relationships about which we say, when it exists between would-be lovers, “It can’t possibly go anywhere.”
Zoos are nothing new. The Chou dynasty in 1100 B.C. kept a zoo, called “Intelligence Park.” Ancient Greeks and Romans caged lions, tigers, leopards, bears, elephants, giraffes, camels, rhinos, hippos, ostriches, crocodiles for slaughter in gladiatorial contests, a practice that was halted during the late-300 A.D. reign of Emperor Theodosius, in the time of that theriophobic Gregory of Nyssa. Renaissance explorers brought back a bounty of animals and “wild men” as trophies, souvenirs from still uncharted lands. In 1100 Henry I established a menagerie in Oxfordshire; Henry III moved the menagerie to the London Tower, where it remained until 1828. Montezuma established zoological gardens at Tezuco in the middle of the Fifteenth Century. Cortez came upon aviaries and fishponds at Itztapalapan. The French, helped by Cairo, maintained animal collections over four centuries, only to come close to losing them to the fury of the hungry nineteenth-century revolutionary mob.
The San Diego Zoological Garden exhibits a wild animal collection of more than 5000 individual animals representing more than 1300 species. Founded in 1916 in Balboa Park by Dr. Harry Wegeforth, with “a half-dozen moth-eaten monkeys, coyotes, and bears left over from the Panama-California International Exposition,” the design of the San Diego Zoo emphasizes natural settings and eschews cages, taking advantage of topography, using deep canyons and isolated mesas to make caging of even large cats and bears unnecessary.
But for all that, you can still hardly bear to look. You walk the glassed-in rows of lemurs, toward the gorilla canyon, back toward the arcaded walkway of the reptile house. Like the museum wanderer, you stride past icons in whom the perceived is presented for worship and the act of perception stays numb. Your eyes glaze over. You can’t get out. God knows, you can’t adore. The zoo, even this zoo, conjures up memory . . . flickering on the back wall of the mind, of something that is absent, that once was and is now, no more. The lemur, prowling behind glass, swinging, shaking small sticks ... the serpents coiled in sands, look like framed pictures, like prize collections of found objects. You see only memorializations. Like the photo of the beloved, faded; or the lock of hair shut into a locket; the lemur or the serpent is a remembrance of things past, of better days . . . tragically, carelessly ended. You simply can’t make yourself, you won’t look. You want out.
At high, high noon now on 1 December, Barney Clark in Salt Lake turning more sky-blue and more breathless, his heart and lungs drowning in his own fluids, and the wind blowing cold across a fretful, tropically effulgent landscape in San Diego, this desire to get out, to break through the distance between you and the beast . . . beast in the cage and beast in yourself. . . increases the uneasy pitch of your gait. The too-tight Frye boot pinches. You wince. Pain erases, for the few blocks’ walk down through zoo paths toward Goat Canyon, your sense of physical fragility and mortality, your bloodlust, blood-guilt, and the meat dissolving in your gut. But that pinch, that indigestion, raises the pressure, provoking your interiorized violence. The instinct that fear and fury rouses in you never fleshes out in large gestures; it simmers, keeps your teeth grinding ... not grinding the gristle of the kill, but the worry in your mind. You are locked behind your own doors, and ready to kill.
The “old” zoo of cages and bars, even this zoo of moats, glass, precipitous canyons, reminds you of prisons’ symbiosis between guard and guarded. It reminds you that ferality, and ferality’s inherently uncontrollable chanciness, has moved into the manmade: into the fissionable materials of mass weaponry; into cars and trucks; onto the TV screen, where wild-animal shows and massacres spill out moving pictures of beasts and wars onto the family room’s figured carpet, domesticating beasts and taming battles in the catpiss-stinking suburban house or urban apartment. The zoo, even this zoo, reminds you that you have become as accustomed, and as fearless and disinterested, toward black bears as to massacres.
No wonder. The classic monoanimal exhibit, portraitlike, is presented as an iconic beastly prima donna. Its paradigm is the Individual of the Romantic era — an enthroned stagefront quiddity of its species, the quintessential and representative lion, leopard, or lemur. The mono-animal exhibition also cuts the animal out of its specific environment, its normal web of coexistence, and creates a false impression of who, of what, the viewed-animal is . . . both for itself, and for the world at large.
Walking through a traditionally planned zoo, your confusion about who you are, what nature is, what/ who the beast is, begins, not surprisingly, to become the one thing that does come into clear focus. Not only all that, and past and present, but there is this problem of looking. Everything about the mono-animal exhibit travels toward the eye (in proper perspective) arranged, John Berger writes, “for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God,” which is not, any longer, your stance in, on, the world.
Add to this that your eyes are not much good any longer, either physically or morally. Capacity to concentrate on any object that does not, rather immediately, speak up to tell a story or to hand out a reward . . . that’s shot. We focus on thirty- , sixty-, ninety-minute-long stories suspended in a jelly of microdots, trapped within a console frame from which every motion, color, and image converges pleasingly, processingly into the eye, as if into the vanishing point of infinity.
Go look at King Tut, the San Diego Zoo’s white salmon-crested cockatoo that is brought out each morning sitting on a keeper’s finger and set on a perch at the zoo’s front gate. Look hard. Look for all you are worth. Then, close your eyes. Try to see him. What you remember is not what you see, but the names of the things you see, helped along by stories and prizes. You carry only the memory of yourself, looking at King Tut . . . you sitting on the inside, looking out.
Part of looking is longing. Part of looking is trying to bridge gaps, to overcome distances between looker and looked-at, between lookers, looking-at. You look, and longing washes over you. You have seen nothing yet, at the zoo. You know it. You no longer, by midafternoon, have any heart for the shaggy brown animals; and the snakes, curled in front of their painted backdrops, frighten you. not because of who they are fabulized to be, but because of who you are; and the birds seem to hop incessantly, to make long piercing scratches behind your temples. The zebras are put away; and the giraffes are locked in the giraffe bam; and the wind is cold. You want to look at elephants, and have twice, now, walked past the yard, and can hardly bear to look their way.
By December the light begins to go by four in the afternoon. On the first of December, with clouds thick along the Pacific coast, the degrees of fade were few, and subtle, along the spectrum between light and darkness. Except for the violet light, you would hardly know twilight had taken midday's space. The wind came up again. The two days' fallen leaves scudded along the tiles set by hand into the walkway of the reptile house arcade. Peacocks swept across the leaves, tail feathers ground level, swishing sibilantly across the stems, the leaf edges. The walkway, by then, no longer echoed with visitors' footsteps, conversation, giggling. Even the Taiwanese Army had gone.
Far back in the violet-hued distance, a chainsaw whined; and below the violet, the freeway filled with the beginnings of workday traffic, going home. A zoo employee walked by, whistling.
The light from exhibition boxes glimmered. You do not want to get up from the red granite bench, walk to the wall, lean against the tiles, look; and even less so after you read the sign. “Venomous serpents are indicated by a red dot."
The fear that you will bite is as fear-provoking as your fear of being bitten. You edge to the lit window of Crotalus ruber ruber. The eye does not “glitter malevolently.” How increasingly, this day at the zoo, what you see is what you are.
“Ruber ruber,” you love to say it. “Rue-burr, rooober. . . and with the arcade cleared of the day’s visitors, and the whistling now far off in the violet, purpling distance, you say, sing, “Ruber ruber ruber crotalus ruber ruber. ’’ How, though, to get past the name of the thing, as past the joyousness of saying it, to the thing itself.
Because you are disappointed. You are dismayed by your pathetic need for speech. Earlier that afternoon, during a break in the clouds, you ran toward the macaw, hearing its “Hello, hello, hello,” to a sailor and his girl.
Perhaps nothing shows the shattered instinct, the historic and personal damage in human persons, as much as our inability to see beyond the animal in the mind to the beast in the cage, to see past the name of the thing to the thing itself, beyond the dream of yourself being there, to look . . . to see the mountain, a poet suggested, for what it is. Not as a reflection of oneself.
Walking through the zoo all that late morning, all afternoon, walking and watching your fellow watchers, all going in pairs and groups of four, five, your heart falls. One visitor reads the sign that identifies the animal. The other, or others, cursorily examine the enclosure, then shuffle on to the next beast, as if drawn ahead by an invisible squaredance caller. “To see,” the poet Valery wrote, “is to forget the name of the thing one sees.”
Overnight, in Salt Lake City, Barney Clark’s heart came out, and by morning, he was sipping water. His blood pressure was “that of a seventeen-year-old,” and you suppose that the surgical team has turned off “Bolero” and, at least in shifts, are sleeping. The sun came up in San Diego, into cloudless skies. Eucalyptus leaves lay still, the giraffes were let out of the giraffe bam, tree kangaroos were out, and the big cats, the bears, the gorillas. Out in the renovated 14,000-square-foot rain forest aviary, a keeper was washing down the concrete with ammonia-and-water solution.
This aviary, part of the new “Heart of the Zoo,” is “more than a facelift,” zoo public relations writer Jeff Jouett wrote in the October, 1982 Zoo-nooz. It is, he asserted, “a subliminal lesson in geography . . . more precisely in zoogeography — and a peek at the San Diego Zoo of the Twenty-first Century. At work here are the concepts of visitor and animal interaction that will make a big difference in what you see at the zoo of the future and how you will see it.”
Under a forty-five-foot-high vault of almost-invisible wire, sunlight shining down through the trees that form a rain-forest canopy, birdsongs pop out from among clusters of leaves, from along the edge of the steadily pouring waterfall, and set down, twitch tail feathers, fly.
A red wattlebird sits on your shoulder, pecks at your pearl earring. You can look up, down, right, left, forward, and behind. There is no “special” spot at which to stand, no “viewing,” no “lookout,” no center that will or will not hold. You are not the center toward which anything converges. You are also there. Your shoulders slacken, relax.
This rain forest aviary, and the more recently built Whittier Southeast Asian exhibits, immerse zoo visitors in landscaping and sounds, smells, colors, shapes of beast and bird, invite the upright human figure to inhabit equally the zoo’s newest re-creation. The conviviality, restored between man and beast in this human-inclusive new Heart of the Zoo, expands into gregariousness thirty miles north in the hills of the eleven-year-old Wild Animal Park. More than 3500 animals of 300 species . . . antelope, deer, giraffe, rhino, wild asses, Arabian oryx, Przewalski's horse, Pere David’s deer, slenderhorned gazelle, waterfowl . . . roam the developed 650 acres of the 1800-acre holdings.
When the 948-foot-high Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889 for the Paris Exposition, most of the persons who climbed to its top had never before seen the world from such a vantage. Standing on the hiking trail above the two-acre Wild Animal Park Asian elephant yard, a visitor may, for the first time, not look at an elephant across a horizontally lined distance. Gazing down at the roaming herd of eight female elephants, the bottom begins to drop out of the bad times gathered up like fur balls caught in the throat. It’s a two-Buds hit, there, a two-beat twitch that starts up the legs and travels, tickles, taps out its code on the glands, hits the arteries with honey, and pumps out one slowly swelling you-just-can’t-help-but-do-it moment (Born, not made!) that wise men bring gifts to. The switch goes off in the big head that's been minding matter, that’s been trying to kickstart the numb heart into life. The beast is back.
The long, stout columnar front limbs and sloping hindquarters shift, shuffling. The chair-cushion-size feet pad softly across dust and wood shavings, the soles of the feet expanding beneath five-ton body weights. The elephants walk with a light step, scarcely leaving any tracks. The eight-foot-long trunks toss dirt and shavings up over and across the powerful heads onto massive, sparsely haired backs. Sunlight picks up the minute dust-and-wood particulates that barb the bristle ends. Sunlight halos the elephants with auburn, russet aureoles.
“It ain’t the meat, it’s the motion that makes your mamma wanna rock.” Sitting astride seventeen-year-old, 10,000-pound Mary, safely steady, straddled across her broad back, rocked gently by her measured padding up the trail, slowly, then down through archways of laced tree-tops, the distance is crossed, the longing met. The meat is hot.
The sun is up to high noon in a pure-blue sky. Radiance lights up handwriting on the horizon . . . written in rub, in fleshy, hairy Braille, and reads to all five senses.
This is the sweetbutter sunlight after the storm that melts in the mouth and slides down, that soothes the history-frayed nerve smooth, and makes me forget yesterday’s chill, yesterday’s news, yesterday’s wind and rain squalls. If you will stand on the hiking trail above the elephant yard and look down at the halos shimmering above those beasts, if you will believe only for a moment that all this happened, if you will reflect on the fact that up in Salt Lake City Barney Clark has a brand-new heart, you could know that right now, to be on this elephant. I’ve got honey in the mouth, and can only offer, “Life is as good as it ever has to be. For now.”