Thursday, June 28, 2012
One of my yearly rituals, after my school year is well and truly done, is to take a day and go to the Bronx Zoo. All. By. Myself.
It's not that I don't love my family - I do, of course - or that I don't think they'd enjoy a day at the zoo. They would. But... well, there's a certain fact to motherhood. It doesn't lend itself to quiet contemplation or to observation of nature. At least, it doesn't if your progeny is wide awake at the time. So off I go, every year, on my own - with no intention of seeing all the animals the zoo is home to. When I have the leisure time to do so, I am the sort of zoogoer A.A. Milne wrote about:
There are some people who begin the Zoo at the beginning, called WAYIN, and walk as quickly as they can past every cage until they get to the one called WAYOUT, but the nicest people go straight to the animal they love the most, and stay there.
Being a Bear of Very Little Brain myself, I cannot recall which volume this quotation hails from... but I think of it every time I take my Zoo Day trip. If the zoo still had cheetahs, it would be straight to the cheetah exhibit I would go, and stay there until the keepers removed me. If they had wolves, I might go there, too - but honestly, wolves tend to be sound asleep and well hidden throughout the day, and I get mightily annoyed by the people who stand there and howl at the poor things. Howl BADLY, I might add.
The African Wild Dogs at the Bronx Zoo, quite sensibly, stay as far from the viewing windows as possible (the better to avoid the mobs of barking, yipping, howling idiots come to see them - or perhaps to get a better view of the zebras in the next paddock). And I got so tired of listening to people insult the poor Norway rats in the Mouse House, and trying to keep the same idiots from banging or tapping on the glass (clearly they have no concept of how good rodent hearing is, and probably wouldn't care if they did know) that I have given up going there at all.
And so, when I go to the Bronx Zoo on my own, I make tracks for the gorillas in the Congo exhibit.
I can't say that they are my favorite of wild things, to the extent that I would buy plush gorillas or small gorilla figurines, but I do find myself drawn to them. Part of it is that I think gorillas are a kindred spirit. We share a relatively heavyset body, rounded tummy, and deep, pensive brown eyes. We're also fairly patient. The gorilla exhibit draws more than its fair share of daft glass-pounders and those who feel that they simply MUST try to communicate with the beasts on the far side of the glass by drumming on their chests, but I'd swear that the gorillas take this with a sort of resigned dignity. If it wouldn't encourage the bastards, they'd probably roll their eyes. Yesterday, during my visit, one was sticking out her tongue quite intentionally at people - though there was no mischief in her eyes, only a sort of, "Bugger OFF, already - can't a lady get a nap or chow down on regurgitated plant goop in peace?" I've heard, though I can't verify, that one of the Bronx troop used to flip visitors the bird. In both cases, the action drew more gawpers than peace and quiet.
I'd planned to spend the afternoon with the gorillas, but it's hard to find room for quiet contemplation or observation at this exhibit, unfortunately. Part of it was my fault - I didn't realize that Wednesdays are "free admission" days for Bronx residents - and part was that it was summer. Even in relatively quiet times, however, the crowds at the Congo are massive and unruly, and unless you're there at opening (and I wasn't, not by a long shot) the gorillas are often so sick of their visiting cousins that they've retreated to a distance and are happily foraging for the enrichment treats and toys keepers leave for them. I wouldn't have minded this, of course - I can observe from a distance quite happily. Being a creative soul, however, and because I was curious, I did come prepared with a Plan.
Ever since I discovered Koko, the world-reknowned signing gorilla, I've wondered exactly how much these close primate cousins understand of us, of our world. Certainly, the few times I've been able to see them without the mob in tow, they appear to be genuinely interested in what's on the other side of the glass. I've had a young gorilla place a hand on the glass to mirror my own, gazed into the eyes of a matriarch of the troop, and watched several converge on a woman holding up her baby to see better (gorillas find our babies just as cute as we find theirs, apparently). I know that gorillas, like many thinking species, have self-awareness. They can recognize themselves in mirrors and identify a gorilla in a photograph. Why, then, I wondered, don't more habitats include books as enrichment?
Okay, yes, the idea of a gorilla sitting under an artificial baobab leafing through the latest issue of Time isn't quite in keeping with the naturalistic setting. And even my son's beloved board book, Good Night Gorilla, wouldn't hold up long in those massive hands, if the reader decided that he or she truly had a taste for good literature. (Books, yummy.) Still...
So I brought my paperback version of Koko's Kitten - the one I got for fifty cents at the library book sale - lavishly illustrated with photos of Koko, her human teacher Penny, and her first kitty, All Ball. (I loved this story from the first, because it shows that gorillas and three year olds have the same knack for naming things. My son's first pet, a yellowish Betta, was Bulldozer.) I decided that, if I could get close enough to the glass, and if I could catch a gorilla looking at me, I'd flash the pictures and see what happened.
For the most part, nothing happened.
The adults of the troop were, as I'd expected, staying a good distance from the glass. The few that looked at me either couldn't figure out what I was showing them or didn't particularly care - not that I could blame them. I got more focused stares, however, when I stood by the window and read, glancing up occasionally. Each time, the gorilla I'd targeted was watching me, but not moving any closer.
The breakthrough came through luck. One of the yearling gorillas happend to cross over from one side of the exhibit to the other, using an overhead bridge - which brought him directly past my window. As he sauntered down, knuckle-ambling along, I chose a picture of Penny, Koko, and Ball, and pressed it to the window.
He stopped, and visibly squinted at this thing on the other side of the glass. You could fairly see the wheels turning: Is that... what the hey...
Then he moved closer. He dipped his head, and I moved the book up so he wouldn't have to crouch, and he reached out to touch the image. People around me began to ooh and ahhh. Cameras clicked... I wish I'd been with someone, honestly, because I really, REALLY would love to have a picture of this. I caught his eye, and took the book back, turned the page to a larger image, and pressed it back to the glass. He moved closer, studying the image. If I could imagine what he was thinking, it would be, "I know that's a gorilla there. But what's that in her lap?" Cats, of course, would be a foreign concept to a zoo-born primate.
Again I took the book down, and this time showed him how I turned the pages. By now people were going, "Look! He's reading the book! The gorilla is reading the book!" After a moment more, two or three pages, he looked up, directly at me, then turned and walked away.
And yes, that also proved something to me. Like so many toddler boys, yearling gorillas are creatures of motion. A book is interesting, sure, but it doesn't hold a candle to wrestling with your half-brother or foraging for goodies. (Or watching the mama duck who chose the Congo gorilla habitat as home waddle past with her babies... more on that in another post.)
I stayed long enough to try this with three other gorillas - two older, one young - but none evidenced the same interest. Then, because I own the book in hardcover and because it was only fifty cents, I gave Koko's Kitten to a toddler who was wailing because he didn't want to leave the gorillas. The young gorilla had seemed more interested in it, but it did get the boy to stop crying. It turns out that the little one speaks only Spanish, but mom and dad are bilingual, so hopefully the book won't go to waste.
Two species introduced to books in one day.