Over the weekend my friends and I decided to take a trip to the local SB zoo. Growing up I always loved going to the zoo and looking at all the exotic animals, and had been to zoos in San Francisco, San Diego, and other places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I always thought it was cool to be able to see animals I had never seen in the wild all in one convenient location. I had also heard you could feed a giraffe at the SB zoo, and was eager to get so close to such a beautiful animal.
When we first arrived the zoo had the usual charm I remembered from my childhood--immediately upon our entrance we had our photo taken near a small pond with swans, and were given maps and brochures telling us all about the species the zoo currently contains. I looked at the map and tried to map out the best route--gorillas first? No, elephants! But what about feeding the giraffe?! I excitedly walked in every direction and made the appropriate "ooh" and "ahh" noises at each exhibit.
But after a few exhibits, I started to feel a little sad. I know many of these animals are well taken care of in captivity and may not survive out in the wild. But looking at the size of some of the netting for the birds or the murky water conditions for the fish and the penguins made me start to think about the zoo being an oppressive place. It was difficult to balance the feeling of excitement about seeing a snow leopard with the feeling of pity as he lay in the dark shadows of his cave, away from all the spectators. I do not know what these animals are thinking as countless humans walk by and stick their faces close to their exhibits, but I can only imagine it would be a bizarre experience to be an object of amusement or entertainment for paying customers.
Some of the animals seemed to know they were being watched, and have adapted to receiving so much human attention. The Gibbon monkeys for example made a great show of swinging from one rope to the next, and made loud noises whenever someone new walked by. The elephants had great fun splashing mud and water about and giving us a water show. But what if these behaviors are simply natural for the animals, and we're just assuming they're doing it as a performance or for our benefit? I wonder if they find it equally entertaining to watch all the strange humans walk by. Maybe they look out of their enclosures and think about how oddly we move or dress or speak. I like thinking that we are on display for them as well so it's not such a one-sided voyeuristic relationship.
The highlight of the trip was definitely getting to feed Michael the giraffe some lettuce. I waited in line for about 20 minutes, getting more and more excited as I got closer to him. I was instructed to stand behind a specified line and not to pet him. I was also told not to yell or make loud noises, which was hard considering my building excitement. As I handed Michael lettuce, his long tongue wrapped around my hand and felt slightly slimy but not too rough. The experience was brief, but is something I will always remember. Occasionally Michael would wander off, much to the dismay of the people still in line. The employees would have to call out his name and wave more lettuce in his direction to get him to return. It must be strange to be fed lettuce by human after human all day. While I am grateful the zoo can provide such memorable experiences, it's hard not to wonder how the experience feels for the animals on a daily basis.