I’m proud of our zoo. It’s a growing, valuable asset to our community. With the self-immolation of the Jackson zoo over the last few years, the odds are good that it will soon be the only nationally accredited zoo in Mississippi.
That said, something about it gives me the creeps.
I have a long history with our zoo. I can remember when it was essentially a one-lane affair, backed up against a ditch, with pathetic, fly-covered animals peering forlornly from cages on either side.
I also remember being home on leave in 1971 when local musical legend, Jimmy Swan, who was running for state Governor, had a free barbeque at the zoo pavilion. As far as I was concerned, he could out-hank Hank Williams.
After all, if Jimmy Davis, who wrote and sang “You Are My Sunshine,” could parlay that syrupy anthem into a two-time governorship of Louisiana, why not our Jimmy riding his signature song, “The Way That You’re Living is Breaking My Heart,” into the governor’s mansion in Jackson?
It certainly had more pathos that I could relate to. Alas, he placed third in the Democratic primary, losing to Clarksdale’s Charles Sullivan who was later killed in an airplane crash.
But the barbeque was good. Also, not far from the concession stand, there is a brick paving inscribed with the names of my two children, evidence of our participation in an early fund-raising effort to improve the tiger cage.
Speaking of tigers, who can argue with a zoo that names its current featured tiger attraction, before the giraffes arrive, “Kipling.” As someone who has read and collected every book that Rudyard Kipling, the Poet Laureate of the British Empire, ever wrote, including such classics as “The Jungle Book,” “The Man Who Would be King,” and “Captains Courageous,” I think the name is most appropriate.
In fact, one of the stories in “The Jungle Book” is entitled “Tiger, Tiger,” which Kipling once admitted was inspired by William Blake’s famous poem. “The Tyger” (“Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright, in the forests of the night; what immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry.”) Kipling’s story, because of its brevity, is what is known in the trade as a “short-short story.”
However, that takes nothing away from its impact. In fact, less is often more as in perhaps the best short-short story ever written, by Ernest Hemingway, and only consisting of six words: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never used.”
So, what am I complaining about? To be honest, I have reservations about cooping up wild animals in cages and behind fences. All zoos are built on an idea both beguiling and repellant: the notion that we can seek out the wildness and behold its beauty but that we must first contain that wildness.
I suppose it’s my background, too. I like a good steak now and then, and I’m not some radical tree hugger, but I’ve seen so much bloodshed, carnage, death, and destruction in my life that I don’t like to see any animal hurt or penned up.
I’m not killing anything, even a fly. I called out the neighbor boy for shooting the squirrels in my trees. I fuss at my granddaughters for killing the lizards in my yard.
I might as well be a Hindu practicing “ahimsa”, because I will not even step on a bug. Not long ago, I caught a water moccasin in my garage. I took him down to the lake, threw him in, watched him swim away, and said, “Vaya con Dios.”
I’ve been through the Panama Canal at least six times, in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. Early on, I used to watch the clowns on the fantail of the ship with their M-16s shoot at the monkeys in the jungle along about the Culebra Cut, and I would think to myself: if those moneys were also packing M-16s, and could shoot back, mano-a-mano, I wonder how many of these Sergeant York and Audie Murphy wannabes would be out here blasting away.
I felt the same way when monkeys would wander onto the firing range in the PI, looking for food. What’s the message here?
To me, any life has value, and the Old Testament prophet, Job, summed it up when he said: “But ask the animals, and they will teach you.” (12:7) This might also chap somebody’s buns, but I don’t think snipers are that heroic, either.
I once came upon a well-used AK-47. I wanted to take it home to the States, but I knew there was no legal way to get it through customs.
This kid I knew wanted it really bad, so I explained the problem to him. He said, “I don’t care, I will figure it out.”
The last I heard, he was mailing it back to the States, one piece at a time.
I’m familiar with most of the arguments about zoos, pro and con: they provide an educational resource; they are a protected environment for endangered species; they are a valuable economic resource for communities; preservation efforts at zoos can stop animal extinction events; veterinary care is readily available at most zoos, etc.; on the other hand, holding any animal in captivity has questionable ethics; most zoos are treated as recreational facilities; the lives of the animals are secondary to the lives of people; even if captivity extends an animal’s lifetime, it changes their behavior; and even natural habitat enclosures do not fully serve the needs of all animals. I could go on, and I still wonder – who speaks for the animals?
As a frustrated philosophy major, I remember something about Jeremy Bentham and the principles of Utilitarianism.
His “fundamental axiom” says something to the effect that “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” If we were honest, how would zoos measure up against such scrutiny?
For my money, the best “zoos” are the so-called game reserves which provide undeveloped wilderness homes to vast numbers of wild animals.
One such reserve is Tsavo National Park in Kenya, between Mombasa, a port city on the Indian Ocean, and Nairobi, the capitol. Mombasa is the city that has the two sets of giant concrete elephant tusks over the main street.
Stopping there on the back end of an around the world cruise, I can remember telling the ship’s crew that the city was a nice place to visit, but that it had the highest HIV rate in the world at the time.
Since we had a port visit of several days, two of my friends and I rented a small French Renault car, with a sunroof that extended over most of the car and headed for Tsavo on an overnight photo safari.
I was the driver and my friends stood in the back seat with their cameras
taking pictures of the countless animals we encountered. Things went well until I got too close to a herd of elephants, and one of them charged the car. I jammed it in reverse and backed swiftly down the trail, dodging ten-foot-tall termite mounds. Looking back, it seemed funny to us at the time. Now, I wonder how we managed to get away with some of the crazy things we did. Frankly, I was more worried about getting speared by the Mau Mau than getting trampled by elephants.
That night, we slept in a small hotel that was built in a large tree on the banks of a small river. All power was supplied by generators. At dusk dark, they pulled up the steps to the hotel, and everyone watched the animals come to the river to drink. It was like the animals had a “truce;” the carnivores got along with the herbivores. I was reminded of that verse in the Old Testament book of Isaiah where it says that “The wolf will lie down with the lamb. The leopard will lie down with the goat. The calf and the lion and the yearling together” (11:6).
I don’t know what you think about Charles Darwin and his “magnum opus,” the “Origin of the Species,” but let me ask you a question. What animal in the zoo is the most human like? The monkey, right? Let me also ask you this: did you ever stand in front of a monkey’s cage and look him in the eye? Was that happiness or sadness in his locked-up monkey eyes? Tell the truth.
Before I went back into the Navy as a career, I had one semester at the Baptist college, Mississippi College, in Clinton (Truth and Virtue). It was and is a great school, but I couldn’t afford it. Always being broke, I would take girls out to tour the Jackson zoo on cheap dates. This was almost 60 years ago, before the place became a dumpster fire. My favorite exhibit was “Monkey Island,” about 30 or 40 monkeys living in a faux castle, on an island with a water-filled moat, surrounded by a fence. PETA would call it a pitiful prison, but, to me, the place was a zoo within a zoo; a microcosm of animals mimicking human behavior. You could even tell who the head monkey was, and he ran a tight ship. And if anyone ever tells you monkeys can’t swim, they don’t know what they are talking about. Every once in a while, one of the young monkeys would make a break for freedom, swimming across the moat, only to be stopped by the fence.
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the screen writer for the movie, “Planet of the Apes,” was inspired by something like Jackson’s old Monkey Island.
Regarding Charles Darwin, it’s always been interesting to me how some get credit or blame for saying things they didn’t say. For example, Darwin didn’t coin the term, “Survival of the fittest.” That was the sociologist, Herbert Spencer, trying to justify the horrific working conditions in 19th century English factories. Most people would also say that it was Italy’s Machiavelli who said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” but that was England’s Lord Acton. However, Karl Marx did famously say, “I am not a communist.”
I have two bob-tailed Manx house cats, Phoebe and Penelope. Manx cats are dog-like in their devotion to one special human. In their case, my wife. Their breed originated on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea over 2,000 years ago. I let them out every night to go about their cat business. During the day, they sit on the windowsill, staring into the outside. Despite what Doctor Seuss says in his famous poem, I don’t think these two cats are sitting there, contemplating their names. No, they are calculating measurements of speed, time, and space; figuring the odds, determining whether they could take down, and eat, that big grey squirrel that likes to prance across the porch in front of them. They are domesticated house cats, but they would revert to stone cold killers if given the chance.
To defend zoos from the “wild,” you have to be alive both to the risk of one becoming the other, and the difference between them. If you present the wild as no better than the zoo, others can present the zoo as no worse than the wild.
I guess you would have to ask an animal to get a straight answer, and good luck with that. An animal born and raised in a zoo would have a totally different take on zoo life than one caught in the wild and locked up. If you saw any iterations of the movie, Madagascar, you know the comic but harrowing difficulties the escapees from the New York Zoo had in adjusting to life on the African plain. Only movies, for sure, but art often does imitate life, even for so-called dumb animals.
But what do I know? I’m the guy who cried when those airplanes shot King Kong off the Empire State Building.
Light a candle for me.
Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at: bennyhornsby.com.