The bear takes seven steps, her claws clicking on concrete. She dips her head, turns, and takes three steps toward the front of the cage. Again she dips her head, again she turns, again she takes seven steps. Another dip, another turn, another three steps. When she gets to where she started she begins all over. Then she does it again. And again. And again. This is what’s left of her life.
Outside the cage, people pass by on a sidewalk. Strollers barely come to a stop before their drivers realize there’s nothing here to see. They move on. Still the bear paces. Seven steps, head dip, turn. A pair of teenagers approach, wearing walkmans and holding hands. One glance inside is enough, and they’re off to the next cage. Three steps, head dip, turn.
My fingers have wrapped themselves tight around the metal railing outside the enclosure. I notice they’re sore. My breath catches in my throat. Still the bear paces. I look at the silver on her back, the concave bridge of her nose. Seven steps, head dip, turn. I wonder how long she’s been here. A father and son approach, do not stop to stand next to me. Three steps, head dip, turn.
I release the rail, turn, and as I walk away I hear, slowly fading, the rhythmic clicking of claws on concrete.
* * *
A zoo is a nightmare taking shape in concrete and steel, iron and glass, moats and electrified fences. It is a nightmare that, for its victims, has no end save death.
Zoo director David Hancocks writes something echoed by many others: “Zoos have evolved independently in all cultures around the globe.”
Many echo this statement, but it isn’t quite true. It is the equivalent of saying that the divine right of kings, Cartesian science, pornography, writing, gunpowder, chainsaws, backhoes, pavement, and nuclear bombs have evolved independently in all cultures around the globe. Some cultures have developed some of these, and some have not. Some cultures have developed zoos, and some have not. Human cultures existed for scores of thousands of years prior to the first zoo’s appearance about 4,300 years ago in the Sumerian city of Ur, meaning zoos did not evolve in these cultures. And in the time since the first zoo thousands of cultures have existed—some to this day (until the dominant culture finishes eradicating them)—with no zoos or their equivalents to be found.
Zoos have, however, evolved in many cultures, from ancient Sumer to Egypt to China to the Mogul Empire to Greece and Rome, on up the lineage of western civilization to the present. But these cultures share something not shared by indigenous cultures such as the San, Tolowa, Shawnee, Aborigine, Karen, and others who did not or do not maintain zoos: they’re all civilized.
The change of just one word makes Hancocks’ sentence true: “Zoos have evolved independently in all civilizations around the globe.” As Michael H. Robinson, director of the National Zoo, wrote, “The period of civilization accounts for perhaps 1 percent of our history as hominids. With civilization came urbanization. Shortly after we had developed cities on a grand scale, zoos and botanical gardens sprang up in countries as far apart as Egypt and China.”
Civilizations are ways of life characterized by the growth of cities. Cities destroy natural habitat and create environments inimical to the survival of many wild creatures. By definition cities separate their human inhabitants from nonhumans, depriving them of the routine, daily, neighborly contact with wild creatures, which until the onset of civilizations—for 99 percent of our existence—was central to the lives of all humans, and to this day remains central to the lives of the non-civilized.
If it can be said that we are the relationships we share, or at least that relationships form us, or at the very least that they influence who we are, how we act, and how we perceive, then the absence of this fundamental daily bond with wild nonhuman others will change who we are, how we perceive wild creatures, how we perceive our role in the world around us, and how we treat ourselves, other humans, and those who are still wild.
* * *
I walk by a pond. It’s a brisk fall day, and I’m wearing many layers. In the sun it’s warm, but in the shade dew still clings to blades of grass, and it pools in the tiny hollows of curved leaves. Spiderwebs shine. Gnats fly in widening circles. Banded wooly bears wet with dew trundle along open ground, or climb grasses chosen over other grasses for reasons known only to them. The pond is calm, and covered with tiny cedar seeds blown down—released—in last night’s windstorm. The seeds cluster around cascara leaves and fletched redwood twigs. Backstriders patrol beneath the surface, and deep below I can see the season’s first sacks of frog eggs. They’re attached to dead branches I threw in two years ago because I knew the frogs would like them.
I come back inside to work on this book, and I think again of the bear I saw at the zoo. I think I know—and I think you do, too—what she is doing at this precise moment. She is taking seven steps, dipping her head, and turning. She is taking three steps, dipping her head, and turning.