When I was a boy living in the central California foothills, my mother took my siblings and me to what was billed as a “wild animal park” not far from our home town, somewhere in the rolling golden hills around the San Joaquin Valley.
I was about seven years old, but I can still remember the excitement of meeting my first elephant. I had only seen these animals on television, when we watched Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom every Sunday evening. Even greater was the thrill of being about to sit on the elephant’s back, which I did with my mother—and I also remember how, even at my age, I was disturbed to see how the handler constantly rapped the elephant on its face and trunk, trying to get it to stand a certain way, to lift its leg for a photograph. Someone took a picture of us with the elephant, and as I look at its pensive brown eyes and marvel that I had such a wonderful chance to touch its leathery hide, imagining its place of origin—the African Serengeti, or the jungles of India—I see a sensitive being unhappy, perplexed, tired, quietly mournful. I can scarcely look at this photograph without pain. But even worse is a mental picture I continue to carry with me of another animal displayed at this “park”.
It was an ape, which I now think must have been a bonobo, one of the threatened species of Congo apes who are extraordinary for their interpersonal relations, their happy lovemaking, their peaceful societal structure and their egalitarianism. This ape was sitting in a box with bars on the front, and every time someone walked by or stood near the cage it jumped, striking its head on the ceiling of the cage till it bled. I stood there, meeting its liquid and frightened gaze, and remember how I cried to my mother that the ape was unhappy and something should be done for it. Before we left the park I remember my mother talked to one of the men in charge. He told her the ape was okay. My mother wasn’t satisfied with this and we left the park under a cloud. I wept on the drive home, thinking of all the animals in that dusty middle of nowhere, none of which had asked to be dropped there for the amusement of families like ours—white middle class people privileged to buy pleasure at the expense of the defenseless.
All this came back to me again this week as I read about the “private zoo” near Zanesville, Ohio where the owner of dozens of wild animals—rare Bengal tigers, lions, bears, wolves, monkeys—had released them from their cages, then shot himself dead. On our drive home from the “wild animal park”, I remember that as I cried I fantasized that the ape had found a way out of its box and made a run for the woods, where its head could heal and it could live in peace the rest of its days. We can only imagine how the Zanesville animals felt as their jailer threw open their cages and let them run free over the misty Ohio landscape. Frightening and exhilarating freedom soon turned into a bloody hunt as sheriff’s deputies killed the animals on sight, one by one, capturing a few to be taken back to that officially sanctioned animal prison known as the zoo. Perhaps my fantasy of freedom for the unhappy bonobo would have led to worse than a sore head—but who would argue that instant death isn’t better than living in a cage?
Ohio is one of ten American states that doesn’t regulate the kind of exotic animal hoarding that the late Terry Thompson indulged in. Thompson is now beyond the reach of any punitive measures, but there are many other such “preserves” that are just as unregulated as his, their owners unpunished, their animals miserable. We are already such bad stewards of this planet and all that is on it that the fate of these wild animals shot as they fled their jail may seem little in the big scheme of things. But their fate, like that of the ape in the box, is a crime on all our consciences. And their protection and welfare is a responsibility for us all to bear—citizens and lawmakers alike.