I have always been fascinated by zoos. Yes, I know that the current thinking is that the forced confinement of animals is a form of cruelty by one species on another, but I also know that many animals are vanishing from the shrinking wilderness and will die out without the efforts of zoos and similar institutions. In any event, I grew up enjoying zoos as a major entertainment in my life, and I don’t apologize for the love of animals that was fostered by this.
When I was an 18 year-old sailor walking through the zoo in Rome with fellow sailor from our ship, I was explaining to him that if a zoo animal can figure out a way for visitors to feed it, the animal will show you how to accomplish this. As if to demonstrate my point, a rhinoceros, seeing we both had popcorn, came thundering from the back of its outdoor exhibit, stuck its large head over the railing, and opened its mouth expectantly. It's head was in our path, mere inches away. We laughed. Somewhat hesitantly, I put a handful of popcorn on its tongue, but nothing happened. The large beast just stood there, mouth open, waiting. It occurred to me that the rhino didn't realize there was food on its tongue, so I gently tapped its snout, whereupon the mouth closed, there was determined chewing for a moment, and then the mouth opened again. This was repeated until we ran out of popcorn.
Years later when I was living in San Francisco, I was walking alone through the zoo when a similar thing happened. An ostrich noticed my popcorn and ran to a corner of its cage where a tiny opening allowed it to stick just its head out onto the visitors' path. It too opened its large beak, making a squawking noise to attract my attention. I dutifully walked around the enclosure until I came to the bird. I offered a handful of popcorn, and was immediately bitten! That hurt, but no skin was broken, and I stormed off in disgust, taking my popcorn with me, eating it myself.
Thinking about it later, it occurred to me that I'd now been menaced by both an ostrich (the largest bird in the world) and a hummingbird (the smallest). Since I've lived with parakeets much of my life (and certainly been bitten by them—one, the evil Floyd, hated humans and if you brought him close to your face while he was sitting on your finger, he'd bite you on the flesh between the nostrils, pleased by your scream), I can claim to have had close encounters with a large number of avians.
The behavior of animals in zoos is quite remarkable. A keeper once wrote about an experiment in which putting a screwdriver on the floor of the cages of the great apes vividly demonstrated the difference between them. The gorillas were afraid of the screwdriver, avoiding it with suspicion or chest-pounding in defiance of the intruding tool. Conversely, the chimpanzees were fascinated, picking up the screwdriver and, in the words of the zookeeper, "using it for every possible purpose except the one it was made for." But when the screwdriver was placed in the orangutan cage, it promptly disappeared. The next day the cage was empty and the former tenants had to be hunted down and returned. "The orangs," the keeper explained, "are the escape artists of the animal kingdom."
“Dog Meat,” December 27, 2009
"Parakeets and Me," February 5, 2010
“Bears,” February 23, 2010
"Mama, Biopsies, and My iPad," May 19, 2010
"Milking Cows," June 8, 2010
"Teaching English to Cats," August 6, 2010
"The Purring Heart," November 23, 2010
"The Dogs In My Life," April 18, 2011
"My Parents and Dummy," May 13, 2011
"Two Cat Stories: Mama and Barney in the Wild," July 9, 2011
“Mama Cat Saves My Life,” October 23, 2011
"Amusing Pictures of Cats and Other Animals," May 10, 2013
"My Cats Get Involved in My Knee Surgery and Selling My Condo," June 7, 2013
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013