mad in pursuit memoir notebook

DISPATCHED FROM THE intersection of yesterday and forever

A Visit to the Zoo

Our next film project will be with the Seneca Park Zoo. It hasn't been nailed down yet because both their PR director and Cosmo had busy summers planned. But yesterday was Labor Day, the official end of summer here in the U.S., so J. and I decided to go to the zoo and scope it out.

Zoos are paradoxical places, especially small zoos like Rochester's. The animals are captive, make no mistake about it. The big cats pace in their small cages and young baboons dash around in circles. If you believe the narrator in "The Life of Pi," you understand that what animals value most is predictable routine (or safety) and plenty of food. In most zoos, animals are safe and well-fed. Like my pampered parrot tells me, who needs the damn jungle when you have maid service?

You can decide what you want about whether zoos are good places for animals. But for humans, they are a magic window into an unknown world, a beckoning to adventure -- or maybe a warning to stay home.

I can't remember when or how I got my own longing to experience exotic parts of the world. My childhood reading didn't venture far beyond Nancy Drew, I disliked geography classes (though maps were always interesting), I was shy around strangers, and I was a picky eater. And yet, by the time I hit high school, I was ready for the Unknown.

I was maybe a freshman in high school, when I was seized by the romantic notion of being a missionary in the Amazon jungle. I can't remember whether this was before or after I wanted to be an architect and build labyrinthine houses on cliffs overlooking the ocean. The Amazon missionary thing had nothing to do with religion -- it just sounded neat.

Anyway, one summer afternoon my father suggested we take a drive over to the St. Louis Zoo, which was only about 3 miles from where we lived. It was a treat -- my dad all to myself. We wound up in the snake house. I stood in front of the anaconda cage. The giant snake was at least as round as my fat thigh and all 10 or 15 or 20 feet of him draped over the artificial tree branch, more restless than usual. Maybe I was big girl enough to start reading the labels that went with the animals. I saw that the anaconda inhabited the Amazon jungle. And just like that, my missionary ambitions evaporated. If baptizing pagan babies meant confronting anacondas, the devil could have them.

So, a trip to the zoo changed my life.

It might be fun to do our zoo project around this kind of story -- how a zoo visit can change a person.

9.7.04

NOTES

Anacondas

Seneca Park Zoo, Rochester NY

St. Louis Zoo, St. Louis MO