LEANING over to check out the motionless monitor lizard plastered against the cement wall of its pen, I almost squashed the millipede.
My little finger alone is fatter than that industriously wriggling body. The combined weight of my leaning torso would have turned my fellow creature into splat art, a personal tragedy for the millipede and its progeny, but, on the scale of my zoo moments, just another speck in my acquaintance with caged specimens of “wildlife exotica.”
Since a Girl Scout fieldtrip exposed me to a masturbating orangutan in the former city zoo, I’ve always viewed a visit to any manmade animal “sanctuary” with mixed feelings.
Still drawn at 42 as I was at nine to pythons, crocodiles and other animals my father never considered adding to my childhood menagerie of 12 dogs and a cat, I like animals more than I can stomach most humans.
But while I can be transfixed by a freshly caught squid pulsing purple and silver in the translucence of its last moments on a vendor’s slab or watch my cats watch their flicking tails, I can’t linger around the pens.
It’s not the stink—urine, rot, some festering sore matting an animal’s pelt—but my smell, what, if I had an animal’s finely tuned senses, I would have detected as emanating from my body as naturally as skin warmth or sweat: horror, pity, loathing, shame.
No Indiana Jones or Crocodile Dundee, I see and am reassured by the bars, screens and walls that keep me beyond the animals’ reach while fixing the beasts in my sight.
But where is the barricade to sanitize my viewing? The partitions that allow me a ringside stance to observe the fine, brown-red hair on an endangered Philippine deer’s antlers are the same ones that keep me hostaged to the sight of penned-in civet cats, Philippine leopards and monkeys manic pacing around their prisons, surely a sign of domestic psychosis not afflicting the most simple-minded, slow-witted but free-range chicken ever to cross the path of an onrushing vehicle?
Is it only decrepit and underfunded zoos that transplant the sensitivities of concentration camps, ghettos and resettlement camps among the great untamed?
In an upscale Bangkok crocodile park, I once jostled with other tourists snapping photos of young men wrestling with crocodiles. One half-naked fellow in red pantaloons roughly embraced an undersized crocodile while his smiling colleague forced open the croc’s jaws so he could insert his head.
Remembering my younger avid self, I can think of a use for “lockjaw.” We foist our craving for entertainment on creatures that would disagree, if they were higher up in the food chain.
Bereft of our boys, who would have lightened the visit to this mini-zoo with the charm of a day’s escape from the humdrum, my husband and I wander among the cages. He tries to teach Cebuano to a chatty Myna that will only utter “hi” and “goodbye.” After several tries, the mentoring breaks down: the hubby resigns himself to simply translating the bird, who outparrots the parrot in sticking only to his learned English, perhaps expecting an early breakfast, only to be disappointed by the human’s obtuseness.
Emerging from the gloom under the thick canopy of planted trees, we leave that otherworld of caged smells, plaintive cries and sudden, despondent lunges.
The breaking sun catches bits of color in the dew-moistened sward around us: discarded styro packs, “puso” leaves with sticky grains of rice, even three cans of Coke thoughtfully wrapped and sealed inside a plastic bag, which someone deposited under a log.
Our parks certainly reinvent the wild life.
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* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 27, 2008 issue