One day shortly after the opening of the Great Ape House at Lincoln Park Zoo, I was standing in a group of about 15 people outside the glassed-in cage that was home to a family of gorillas. Things were quiet in the cage. Some of the animals were sleeping; others just sat.
Suddenly, a big silver-back who was presumably the top male began to chase a baby. I’m not an expert at determining the ages of gorillas, but I would guess the baby was less than a year old. The chasing looked like fun, like a game, like daddy pretending to be a monster and chasing a toddler around the living room. But as the chase went on, I could feel the apprehension spreading through the little group of spectators. The baby, screaming loudly, stayed just a step ahead of the big male as they caromed around the cage. Were we about to witness a ghastly act of gorilla pathology? A baby’s brains dashed against the concrete floor?
Then the baby stopped and spun to face its pursuer. It raised its arms above its head, screamed even louder, and started to chase the big male. The male turned on a dime and ran for his life. The chase, now reversed, continued around the cage.
We all laughed. The sudden release of tension was as palpable as the joy that followed it. We had been privileged to witness a family vignette. We had peeked inside the heads of these animals and found them acting like hairier versions of ourselves.
To me, the appeal of a visit to the zoo lies in the possibility of moments like that. I will never be able to study gorillas like Dian Fossey did; with a daughter nearing college age, a mortgage, and a travel wish list that gets longer every year, I will probably never even have the tourist version of her experience. But the zoo allows me a different kind of entrance into the gorilla’s world.
Recent events at Lincoln Park Zoo–and some of the journalistic comment they inspired–reminded me of this experience. David Hales, hired as zoo director just 15 months ago, suddenly resigned. The official reason was philosophical differences between Hales and the Lincoln Park Zoological Society, the private organization that operates the zoo in partnership with the Chicago Park District.
Raymond Coffey, writing in the Sun-Times on May 30, identified those differences as centered around what he termed “Hales’ urge to shift the zoo’s focus to education and conservation” and away from “being a zoo.” But when I talked to Kevin Bell, the newly appointed zoo director (he was formerly curator of birds), he said his policies would be based on a strategic plan put together in the late 80s. This was the same plan that David Hales had been following, and it firmly commits the zoo to education, research, and conservation.
“Philosophical differences,” of course, has become a sort of all-purpose explanation that’s pulled out whenever an executive is asked to leave. I suspect its real meaning is something like, “My philosophy is that I don’t like you, so clean out your desk.” Certainly nobody– including Coffey–has voiced any specific criticisms of Hales’s actions during his brief tenure.
The general charge, that Hales was emphasizing conservation and education at the expense of the public’s pleasure, strikes me as totally off the mark. There is no conflict between these aspects of the zoo’s mission. In fact a commitment to conservation is both essential to the continued existence of a zoo in these ecologically catastrophic times and beneficial to the visitors’ zoo experience.
Consider the story I used to open this column. In the old preconservation days, the days when Bushman, the Lincoln Park Zoo’s big gorilla, was more famous than the mayor and probably smarter, we came to the zoo to see animals locked in cells. Bushman lived behind heavy iron bars. A sheet of plate glass in front of the bars served as a further shield between us and him. The glass was needed because the higher primates often threw things–like their own feces–at the spectators.
My friends and I, like most small boys, loved anything truly gross. We always came to the zoo hoping to see some flying feces. And the primates, doubtless unhinged by boredom, sometimes obliged us. The way animals were displayed in those days encouraged us to think like the aristocrats who used to tour the madhouses of 18th-century London. We were staring at strange wonders, freaks, creatures who had nothing to do with us.
It is harder to think that way in the new Great Ape House. Seeing a silver-back male squealing in make-believe terror while an infant chases him around the cage, watching a baby staring out at us from the safety of his mother’s arms, we cannot escape a sense of kinship.
The new house was built (back in the 70s) for conservation. The idea was to create a situation where gorillas, chimps, and orangutans could live in family groups. The hope was that, in this setting, they would breed. The babies would help sustain the species and provide new animals for the zoo.
The babies are essential because it is no longer justifiable to hire some guy in a pith helmet to go off to Africa to capture wild animals. Zoos sometimes capture a few animals to expand the captive gene pool or to prevent extinction of a species on the edge of collapse, but otherwise the late-20th-century zoo must be self-sustaining. Zoos acquire new animals mainly by trading with each other. Any zoo that does not concern itself with conservation, that does not have a major captive breeding program, will have nothing to trade and will not stay in business.
The important point here is that good conservation makes for good displays. Animals thrive–and breed–when they can behave as closely as possible to the way they do in the wild. And animals displaying the full range of their natural behavior are much more interesting to look at than the forlorn inmates of sterile cell blocks.
When the Great Ape House opened, Sinbad, Bushman’s successor as the zoo’s big gorilla, did not join a family group. He was like an old con who has been in stir too long to function on the outside, and zoo officials thought it would be too risky to place him in a cage with other animals. They decided he would have to live out his days in solitary, with no conjugal visits.
These days Lincoln Park Zoo helps fund field research into the habits of the animals in its collection. The immediate goal is to learn how best to keep these animals in captivity, how to create a zoo setting that will allow them to behave naturally. Again, this is better for the animals and for the visitors to the zoo.
Currently the zoo is successfully breeding a bird called the Bali mynah. This native of Indonesia was near extinction a few years ago; its wild population had sunk to 18 individuals. Today there are over 60 wild Bali mynahs living in a national park on Bali. Birds born in Chicago have been released in the park and have successfully bred with the remaining wild population. If you visited the zoo’s Bird House and saw some Bali mynahs and looked at a photo display or a videotape about the reintroduction project, would this effort to educate you interfere with your enjoyment of the zoo?
In the early 70s, I became a docent at the zoo. For two years I worked on what were called off-premise tours: visits to grammar schools by a two-person team of volunteers. We carried a mammal, a bird, and a reptile and used the animals for a 45-minute presentation in each of the school’s fifth-grade classrooms.
Sometimes we brought iguanas or turtles, but our most popular reptile was the boa constrictor. Teachers often have to struggle to hold the attention of energetic ten-year-olds, but a docent with a five-foot snake draped across his shoulders has no such problem. My favorite bird for these trips was the barn owl. Our owls were outfitted with jesses, the leather straps that falconers attach to the feet of their birds, so that they could perch comfortably on our hands.
Our methods were Socratic. We pointed out the bird’s hooked beak, its powerful talons, and its big eyes and asked the kids to think about what use these might be to a nocturnal mouse hunter. Then I would ask everybody to be very quiet, and instantly it would get so quiet we could hear the clock tick. Owls have very special wing feathers, I would tell them, listen. I would raise the owl up over my head and then sweep my arm down nearly to the floor. The bird would flap its wings in response to the fall, and the flapping made almost no sound. Did you hear anything? I would ask. And the kids, wide-eyed, would say no. Can you think why a night-flying mouse eater would need quiet wings? I would ask. They always knew the answers. Was I being too educational? Was I not letting a zoo be a zoo?