Trapped in a Cage

19 06 2015

flamingoToday is a very special day. Today, I celebrate 35 years on planet earth. (Prior to that, I lived on Jupiter.) But seriously, I have grown to love and respect this planet, enough to dedicate my career to protecting it. For the same reasons, I chose to be vegetarian at age 11, to protect all the beautiful, diverse forms of life that we are blessed to have calling this place “home.” It is this diversity that drives me to want to travel, to see strange and foreign lands with mystical trees and unusual creatures. It’s the same reason why many people go to the zoo.

The zoo has always been a perplexing issue for me to come to terms with. On the one hand, I have vivid memories as a kid of seeing first hand some of these strange and foreign creatures from the safety of my mom’s skirt-side. To peer into the eyes of a baboon and realize, “he sees me… he recognizes me… he is LIKE ME,” was mind-blowing. Being able to recognize the traits of ourselves in these non-human beings makes one ponder about our connections and our choices.

dumboOne of my earliest memories of the zoo was actually bitter-sweet. It was a typical hot day in the south. I was maybe 5 years old. We had already seen the penguins and lions and giraffes. We were finally heading to see the largest of all the zoo creatures- the elephant exhibit. I had read about these magnificent animals in books and seen cartoon characters on TV, but never seen one in real life. We walked up to the exhibit, and a crowd of people was swarming. Nobody was smiling, but I could not understand why.

angriffI watched, as I got closer, but there were no elephants visible. Instead, there was a zoo worker standing there with a garden hose, feverishly trying to wash away a large stain of red from the grey concrete floor. I watched as the clear water intertwined with the red liquid, streaming past large chunks of broken watermelon. I overheard the adults talking about what had happened. Apparently, one of the elephants was performing her daily tricks, when she unexpectedly reared up and attacked her handler. It was horrifying. The trainer was killed instantly.

Today, I was at a work meeting that turned into a non-work meeting. I was all set to talk with the energy manager at the Indianapolis Zoo about their efficiency projects, but he was swamped with a broken ozone machine, and, as it turned out, could not meet with me. Instead, he let my wife and I get a free pass into the zoo, since it was my birthday and all. I’d never seen the public side of the zoo before, only the endless labyrinth of water piped behind the scenes to the numerous aquatic displays.

Bethany and I were ushered through the gate and set free to roam, without a map. It was barely 10:30 in the morning, but the air already felt like soup. We wandered from exhibit to exhibit, each one re-igniting my childhood awe and wonder. “The stingrays have so much personality!” I exclaimed, as several of them paused on the other side of the glass and stared me down inquisitively. They obviously have awareness of the fact that we are here, watching them. As we got near the center of the park I found a map and got my bearings. It’s really not that big of a place, which is typical for older, urban zoos. This makes it challenging to meet modern day standards for humane zoo habitats.

orangutan bldgWhen I looked up, I saw the signature steel columns soaring into the sky, which I recognized as the brand new International Orangutan Center. I had read and heard a lot about this new construction, and was curious to see it. We walked up to the modern building, which is encircled by an unusual trapeze-eque contraption of ropes, platforms, and ladders, as well as an aerial track for guests to ride and view the orangutans up in the air. Fascinating design, I thought. Bethany insisted that we should ride the gondolas, since, “It’s your birthday!” They were still running the buckets empty as part of their safety check, so we had to wait to board. It was hot, so we decided to go check out the inside of the exhibit while we waited.

The building- while stunning- left my stomach feeling empty once I stepped inside. There is a spacious area of interactive displays and creative avenues to get visitors to donate money to plant trees in Bornea. Well-crafted videos talked about how the orangutans can perform brilliantly at tasks like brushing their own teeth, or various intelligence tests. Yet, when I pressed my face against the second story glass overlook, what I saw was a pathetic display of hay with wilted lettuce rotting in the middle of the otherwise empty floor. I saw two orangutans sitting still in separate corners. Each one had a face that, upon closer inspection, showed no signs of happiness. They stared back at me, inches away from my own eyes, and all I could feel was sorrow. They are intelligent, sentient beings. Here they are, with no trees to climb. No plants to pick leaves from. No bugs to inspect. Nothing but hay. Sure, they could go climb outside, but man-made steel columns are no replacement for the tactile nature of tree bark.

zoo rideWe didn’t stay long inside the display. We returned to the outside, only to find that it had grown even hotter. “The breeze on the ride will feel refreshing,” we decided, so we went back to ride the gondola. The ticket booth was closed at the bottom of the ramp, so we wandered up to the front of the line. Bethany had to go to another location to buy our tickets, while I waited in line in the shade. During that time, several families got to skip ahead of me.

A lovely, interracial family with three kids under five walked up behind me. As they approached I heard her say to her husband, “If we get stuck in this thing, you’re sleeping… in the playground.” He smiled and shook his head and replied, “Why would you even say that?!?”

I watched as they got ushered past me, only to be told, “I’m sorry, only 4 persons per car. You’ll have to split up.” The mom was nonplussed and agreed to take the babe in arms separately. Just then Bethany reappeared with our tickets in hand. We got loaded up in our own shiny green gondola just minutes after this family, and then off we went! It was slow-moving, but the breeze was fantastic! Once we got up to the top, we were 50 feet in the air and had a glorious view of both the zoo and the downtown skyline. I snapped lots of photos with my camera, and relaxed in the comfort of the cool air against my sweaty skin. We circled the orangutan complex (none of the animals were outside), and then started descending to the platform below.

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As we got closer, our gondola stopped, and we waited in the queue of families waiting to disembark. It seemed like it took forever, but it also felt that way when they were loading people on earlier. No rush here, for sure. We chatted more about plans for what to see next before we had to leave. We waited. I spotted an orangutan climbing up to the tall platform! We waited. We talked about what food to make for my birthday party tomorrow. We waited. Finally, I looked up and realized that NONE of the gondolas were moving. Not even the ones in the air. That’s when we realized that this was not normal operating procedures. A zoo worker approached our car hesitantly to explain the situation.

zoo ride failureWe were the lucky ones. Our gondola was frozen in place just 10 feet above the ground. We were trapped for just over half an hour, and able to joke with others stuck nearby. We shouted over to the mom and asked, “So WHO is sleeping in the playground tonight???” She laughed (he smiled nervously). They were finally able to unload us after 6 additional staff conferred with each other and a variety of ladders were rushed to the scene.

I was relieved that we were not trapped higher up. Three other cars were UP in the air, with no clue what was happening. News helicopters started circling the area as fire engines drove through the crowds to rescue those who remained stuck. “You know, I love my life,” I whispered to my wife. “Even when things go wrong, they go wrong in the best possible way.”

The irony here, however, is what really sticks with me, and why I am writing this. There we all were, humans trapped in cages, high in the air. We could not escape. We could not be free. We were stuck there, a spectacle to behold. For just a few short hours, the families trapped higher up felt a little bit like zoo animals. They could not communicate their needs. They could not hide. For all intents and purposes, they were there to be observed and sensationalized. For me, this experience reinforced my dismay at the Orangutan Center. These creatures deserve more. The need our love and respect. We are not so different.

Nevertheless, I still remain unsure how I feel about zoos. Yes, there are good zoos. There are bad zoos. But even the worst zoo can still open the eyes of a child who may grow to be a change agent for planet earth. I know that seeing those animals up close as a child changed my life. That is likely part of why I decided to become vegetarian at age 11. No, it’s not fair to those animals, but if they are rescued and cannot be released back into the wild, they serve a very important purpose to inspire compassion in future generations. Do I support trapping animals in cages for human entertainment? No. But education? Maybe.




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