Tuesday, August 5, 2014

of zoos & critter-fests

I think cities feel like they need a place for kids to stare at the hugeness of an elephant, and somehow it's all worth it to get that moment when a kid reaches out and actually pets some horse or goat or whatever, and feels that kinship with the animal world. The animals, for their part, must live in captivity, and do as their trainers say, but they eat pretty well, don't have to fight for their food or worry about predators, and somehow seem to know that it's all about reaching out to the kids and they dutifully are pretty nice.

At the Science Spectrum / city Critter-fest there was a tiger show, a crocodile/alligator show, horse and elephant rides, even maybe a camel ride, and lots of other attractions, so it was about as close as the city of Lubbock could get to actually having a zoo for a few days. I was happy with it, because, even though they soaked us parents every time we turned around, and even the animals recognized and responded to the temporary nature of the crowded quarters, everyone did what they were supposed to: the animals gave the kids rides, and let themselves be petted, and everyone came out with a better sense of what animals are really like.

When you get right down to it, an animal will just pee or poop right where it is, because somebody is always there to clean it up, and it's one of the perks of living in captivity and letting kids pet you all the time. To the kids, who are right at the level where it all seems to fall right near them, it might be the most amazing thing about the animals, besides the general smell of hay and animal breath. In the tiger show, once, one of the tigers let out a mighty roar; I was really amazed. In the end I didn't know if they permitted that routinely or even if they encouraged it once in a while. In general they led the tigers around by a stick but the stick had raw meat out at the end of it, and you knew that the tiger was a little depressed to be in this huge cage, but then, he had plenty of raw meat all the time. It's a living, eh?

I obviously have mixed feelings about the whole thing, but I'll say this: I'm not sure the alternatives are all that much better. I think these days they figure that in order to be humane they have to have an enormous space for the animals before they even start, so a permanent zoo would have to be out of town or at the very least take up most of some park. And people like me aren't crazy about permanent open-air jails for creatures that have to be locked up at night, that require permanent guides and regular employees who feed them and, every once in a while, fall in the moat.

But there's another option: a permanent buffalo prairie, somewhere just outside of town, with a place where people could come up to certain animals and get that moment of recognition, where they could peddle their wildlife preservation schemes and people could relate to the natural world in the kind of way that they used to around here, by watching buffaloes get up a good speed along a wides stretch of grass. This of course would require a huge commitment of land and money by the state, but would at least be feasible, and would run itself with very little upkeep.

When I lived in Kansas they had one of these across the border in Missouri, a place called Prairie State Park, in or near Lamar. The locals were mad for several reasons. One was that the local tax base was eroded and that put pressure on the schools to survive; these were schools that had trouble surviving anyway for lack of kids. A huge chunk of land carved out of the countryside, and put to buffalo, and there's that many fewer kids. But the other problem was brucelosis; the buffalo got it and gave it to the local cows, maybe? I can't remember the problem exactly, but it was something like that. It was kind of like the wolves at Yellowstone: actually preserving, or rebuilding a natural environment was very threatening to people who had basically devoted their lives to taming that environment.

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