Humanity is a Bully

Humanity is a Bully

This past Sunday, I took eight year-old H to the zoo where we met up with his best school bud for a lengthy safari through 200 animals and 20,000 sunburned, whiney Canadians of the Homo sapiens species.

The place was a zoo.

I found the animal “displays” deeply depressing. We could only see one elephant, one lion, one hippo, one polar bear and one cheetah. There were only two orangutans, two warthogs, two zebras. The animals appeared lonely and listless. Maybe, I’m anthropomorphising, but a four year-old orangutan who just slumps against a post with his extra-long arms flopped over his head instead of playing in his tree fort? This is a boy in need of a happy pill – or a rainforest, for in the real world, orangutans don’t play in tree forts; they play in trees.

I hadn’t taken either of my kids to the zoo in more than two years. The crowds detract me – a stinky, loud, crying mix-up of humanity, arguably more cage-worthy than the animals they convoy to see. But, Sunday was a perfect day weather-wise, and I remembered how fun the water park was at the zoo, so I packed a change of clothes for H and off we went.

I believe that the animal keepers are good, caring people fully invested in the welfare of their charges. But, the older I become, the clearer I see that these alleged sanctuaries are animal prisons concocted so that people can have multiple photo ops with their children. The irony is that the kids don’t care. H and his friend could have been anywhere. They glanced at the animals, but were unimpressed by the sleeping lion and warthogs. It is much more exciting for them to watch documentaries about animals in the wild, hunting and playing and bringing up babies. The caged animals were nothing more than wallpaper to two little boys who just wanted to climb rocks, get wet and talk. Younger children are equally unmoved. They would rather pet doggies than watch naked mole rats trembling in a pile. I saw one mother trying to interest her toddler in a grazing rhinoceros while his eyes remained transfixed on the fence directly in front of him. “Mama, look, a bug! A bug!”

As the day wore on, I realized that the lethargy I had caught from the animals was actually guilt descending slowly from my brain down to my toes. Humanity is a bully. There is no education for our children in zoos unless we intend to hone their skills as cruel captors or mercenary marketers. I don’t know whether or not animals embody spirits that can be broken but I am certain that captivity crushes their natural instincts to run and explore. It felt wrong to support that by purchasing tickets. I was glad, therefore, when H and his friend expressed the desire to strip off their shirts and play in the water park instead of visiting more exhibits.

At the Toronto Zoo, the “Splash Park” is the perfect antidote for a scorching day. There are a few slides, permanent squirt guns and man-made geysers that shoot up from the ground unexpectedly. With only one gate in and out of the park manned by a perpetual security guard, parents can rest assured that their kids can’t venture in or out unaccompanied.

Resting under a tree, I felt as refreshed by the sounds of children laughing as I did by my water bottle and the cooling shade. Suddenly, in the midst of all the happy sounds, I heard a jagged, frightened cry. “Andreas! Andreas! I can’t find my son!”

Andreas’ mother began pacing back and forth through the low water, not unlike a tiger. Her rising panic was palpable and she became more and more agitated when her son didn’t answer her calls. I could see her mind working. She had been standing and chatting when Andreas had disappeared. At first, she thought he had simply run off to another part of the splash park to play, but as more excruciating seconds passed by, she succumbed to the idea that her son had been taken.

The adults sitting around the perimeter of the park began to stand and move forward. We all scanned the water for a little boy but of course, there were hundreds and none of us knew which was hers. A flash of red swim trunks, and there was Andreas, a small fellow with dark, wet curls, maybe three years old. His mother grabbed him tightly by the arm and began shouting for all to hear.

“Where were you? Do you know how scared I was? You know we’re here alone without your daddy and that means you have to stay close to me! You sit down on the frickin’ bench and don’t move!”

Andreas appeared too frightened by his mom’s anger to even cry. His little body caved in to the bench and he cast his eyes down, running his finger along the wood.

I wanted to smack his mother. If one brings a three year-old to a busy park, one must either be prepared to continuously shadow that child or to accept that he might occasionally slip out of sight and rely on the guard at the gate to ensure his confinement. I would have chosen to shadow. Andreas’ mother chose to socialize and so she momentarily lost her son. She yelled at him out of fear and guilt when the child would have benefited more from a hug and a simple explanation.

Children should not be expected to stand close by their mothers when adventure issues an invitation. Animals should not be required to sit calmly behind bars when their natural instincts call them to roam. We ought to know better than to try to control either of them. No innocent being should be caged just for the pleasure or peace of mind of another.

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