It’s no secret I grew up in the Bronx. I’m not proud or ashamed of it. Rather, I remember how I survived it. Most people who know me have heard about my life there at one time or another, but very few know that one of the things that helped me to survive, saved my soul was the zoo.
The sidewalks of New York can be like a separate, unrelenting entity that roars with massive crowds of people. And when I was a girl, they all pushed at me. Sometimes it was like drowning, being trapped in a crush that swept me away in a raging river.
I visited the zoo from the time I was twelve years old through my late teens. My parents were Russian immigrants and they were hard working, but they were always working, and I was always alone.
When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I would escape to the only place that seemed to make sense – a place with a different pace, sense of time, kind of life. It would slow everything down. Would soothe, would comfort.
The Bronx Zoo was my second home. It was my runaway place. And I usually sat on a bench right across from the gorilla grotto. Those incredible beings seemed so calm, so wise.
I remember there was one very large male in particular that I bonded with. We would stare at each other for long periods of time, and I knew if he were next to me, he would wrap his arms around me and hold me close. He seemed to know how unhappy and alone I was, how much I needed him. I don’t know what passed between us, but it was some kind of energy. And I do know that after a while, looking into his dark eyes, I felt better.
It’s hard to believe that a young girl would want to go to the zoo and sit in isolation for hours, even in the winter with snow on the ground and no one around. But it’s where I went, sometimes just to study, or to be near the animals and the plants, to be someplace where I could smell the earth and the different animal odors.
Strange, all alone, I always felt safe there on that bench with my friend looking across at me.
I know so many people are against zoos. I am too. I’m not a fan of caging any living being, whether its lions, tigers, or elephants, or humans. And penning up dolphins and whales in their watery cages makes me choke.
Shouldn’t we all be able to meet our destinies on our own terms? Isn’t that true, no matter what your shape, or form, or species? Shouldn’t we all live in freedom? Doesn’t every single individual have a right to be free?
But how could a city girl like me ever have found the solace, the company of other different creatures if that zoo wasn’t there? How would I have grown up to love animals and feel the pain of their suffering when people torture or abuse them, or kill them for trophies or to steal their body parts? How would I ever have understood the agony a powerful elephant endures being penned up while it rocks back and forth? How could I ever comprehend the utter loneliness he or she feels isolated from the herd, from their primal land? Would I have ever felt any sadness when watching a panther pace a cage from one end to the other to define a nonexistent territory? Would I have even learned compassion for my animal friends, or every living being?
I came to understand those lessons from going to the zoo.
Is there a better answer to exposing children to wildlife, without caging wildlife?
Today, when I see wild animals living in freedom, having beautiful friendships with humans, for a moment, I smile and my heart swells with a special joy. But in the next breath, I want to scream out: Stay away! Stay far away from us. Humans are not your friend. If you want to live, run! Run from a future dystopian hell!
Have you ever had that same feeling?
What do you think of zoos? Do they only crush the spirit of animals, or are they sacrificial ambassadors to save their species?