While the mainstream media grappled with that line of thought, some admitting that the White House found Biden's honest humanity hard to criticize, a friend of mine and I went to the zoo with no thought of the flu on our minds, at least not mine. The relevance to the swine flu pandemic of our afternoon in the not-so-wilds of Asheboro, NC--though they make an admirable effort--occurred to me only in retrospect.
The flu and the zoo intersect over an issue that struck me at about the third exhibit we reached, the mountain lion's. Mountain lions range over a territory of anything from ten to over a hundred square miles, and this somnolent, languorous cat stretched out in front of us had a hillside of perhaps 1,500 square feet, maybe a bit more. Apparently zoo animals live longer on average than their counterparts in the wild. One can see why from that sleeping mountain lion. With nowhere to run and no need to hunt, think of all the time to sleep.
From exhibit to exhibit we saw some version of the same problem. Perhaps as someone who lived in monastic enclosure for a year in a Trappist monastery this issue appears a bit differently to me than to someone who has not had that admittedly unusual experience. The seals and sea lions have a lovely replication of a rocky coast, but it quickly became obvious that the harbor seals swim laps in a very repetitive pattern, with a wrinkle tossed in every few laps or so. The grizzly and polar bears showed hardly more energy than the mountain lion, in even smaller confines for animals, especially in the case of polar bears, capable of thousand-mile traverses in the Arctic. The elk, bison, rhinos and antelope have much more wide open spaces, but then why did the rhino insist on working the very edge of the field in a straight line along the fence?
In case this sounds like a jeremiad against zoos, in which case it would have very little to do with the Vice-President's "gaffe," we felt privileged to exchange what seemed to us reciprocally intelligent stares with the gorilla silverback, the most moving moment of the day for me. As my friend put it, when the lioness looked at us she saw dinner; the gorilla looked at us as we look at each other, with an intelligence very like ours. One never knows at what point one merely romanticizes animals, but one sensed a being behind the furry mask of his face, and a self-possession, indeed a self, we did not see elsewhere.
And yet the issue came to a disturbing climax for me a few minutes later, after we'd left the gorillas and seen the giraffes and zebras. Tucked in between violent outbursts of noise from the baboons up the hill, we stumbled on the chimpanzees. All seemed well enough until the alpha male sat down at one corner of the exhibition's plexiglass window, directly in front of a couple of families with small children. At a ninety-degree angle to the window, he began banging his right shoulder against the plexiglass, again and again, psychotically repetitive and aggressive, making eye contact with no one. Chimps, apparently, fight wars, the only primate to share that unlovely distinction with us. They throw things ranging from feces to rocks to sticks, and the plexiglass has a long crack and a sizable hole where Hondo the alpha wrought his damage. A guard told us of the precautions one must take to enter their living quarters, a privilege he once declined.
Even the chimps' great champion, Jane Goodall, documents their potential for homicidal nastiness, so one cannot attribute it entirely to living in imposed enclosure. And yet Hondo and his band want something we all want, something the Vice-President wants: safety combined with freedom. Joe Biden has feedom, but right now doesn't feel safe. Hondo--and the silverback, the mountain lion, even the alligators for whose beauty my friend's eye has an appreciation that evades mine--has safety, but would, perhaps, give it up in an instant for freedom.
Perhaps: because one wonders, frightened and angry as his behavior Sunday seemed, whether Hondo would know what to do with freedom. Joe Biden knows freedom, and resents having to put it on hold in the interests of safety; Hondo resents enforced safety, too. Perhaps only because he represents an evolutionary rung so close to ours do we see his behavior as more evidently sad and disturbing than the graceful lap-swimming of the seals.
And yet that seems precisely the point. We hate having to worry about whether our kids can go to school or our mates should fly in airplanes. One hopes the pandemic will abate, and perhaps too smugly assumes it will, while recognizing the tragic consequences it has already had for those who have lost family members. For most of us, as hopefully for the Vice-President, it will prove temporary, a frightening inconvenience, but little more than that. Hondo does not have such prospects, and has sufficient intelligence to see something out there--in his case, us, rather than the flu--as a threat and irritant. And, sitting there carrying someone's old blue sweatshirt like a shopping bag, he feels just as annoyed in his sense of--what, helplessness? or just plain chimpish petulance?--as does the second-ranking man in the United States government, for reasons that may have something to do with each other, after all.