My daughter Kerala’s birthday and my last day to enjoy granddaughter Zadie until Thanksgiving. We expected rain and the morning did not disappoint, but come early afternoon, the sun appeared. We dashed into the car and headed for the zoo. By the time we got there, it was raining again, but no matter— umbrella in hand and stroller top up, off we went.
Things started off on the depressing side— the rain, grey skies, few people and many of the animals either hiding, sleeping or simply gone. But Zadie started to perk up with the sea otter and then a bit more with the orangutan and seemed genuinely delighted to see the elephants and giraffes from her picture books in three-dimensional living color. By now, she was out of her stroller, running up and down the paths, saying hi to the hippo and bye to the flamingos. She got up close to the glass with a monkey on the other side who hissed at her and she roared back. It seemed like an exciting day for her.
But I couldn’t help but notice the sadness in the leopard’s eyes and overall ennui of animals held in captivity. Sure, someone throws them meat and they don’t have to work for a living, but isn’t that what they were made for? To exercise the full lioness of their lion nature out in their natural habitat? Don’t animals feel the same necessity of freedom as deeply as humans? Maybe not dogs and cats with centuries of domestication bred into their genes—though even here, what dog doesn’t prefer to run free in the fields off-leash and what cat doesn’t demand it’s own cat door and non-curfewed hours?
What is the natural habitat for us humans? More complexity there, more choice, more possibility, but freedom to be wholly oneself in the natural habitat that suits us is essential. We were not made for jails, either the iron bar kind nor the cultural bars of racism, sexism, classism, nor the social bars of confining relationships nor the personal bars of our own making. How many parts of ourselves have we tucked away in the cages and visited like exotic animals in zoos?
Zadie didn’t care about any of this and today’s zoos are educational institutions advocating preservation of natural habitat and more. But if given a choice, I’d probably let the leopard run free and simply enjoy reading the book about leopards to Zadie or watching old Wild Kingdom reruns. Meanwhile, it was a marvelous last day together and I'm so happy for the natural habitat her lovely parents have created for her and so grateful that time with grandparents is part of it. Almost two years old, Zadie is 100% Zadie, free to express her nature within the limits of safety and the social contract of playing well with others. May it forever be so!