11 February 2017

Memories of the Portland Zoological Gardens


W
hen I was young going to the zoo was a favorite excursion. Even then I had mixed feelings about it; I liked seeing the animals in real life, not just as illustrations in books or passing images on TV, but I really didn’t like the idea of them being locked up, unable to move freely through the jungle, or race across the grasslands, or soar over the canyons. One scene has stuck with me vividly from an early visit—this mountain lion pacing in a cage that was obviously too small for him. Over and over again he would cross from the right side of his cage in front of us, turn when he reached the left side, leap up onto a raised area there, cross from left to right at the back of his cage, turn towards us when he reached the right side, and cross again in front of us. That was his life, as far as I could tell. Pacing the same old pattern day after day after day. It filled me with a horror I have no words to express. The one good thing to look forward to (adults assured me) was that the new zoo was almost finished, and that soon he would have a more spacious environment to live in.
It must have been late in 1959 when I saw him again; the Portland Zoological Gardens opened that year at its new site, and the big cats were not moved there (it seems) until November. I was eager to see him in his new location. And I was not disappointed. The new enclosure was much larger; he had space to move about and stretch his legs a bit. And there he was in one corner of it, still pacing as I’d seen him before, tracing the walls of his former cage, endlessly going from one intangible wall to the next, even jumping up onto something at the corner and dropping back down again. It was heartbreaking to see.
Mind you, that wasn’t the end of the story. On later excursions I would see him again, wandering about his enclosure, seemingly more relaxed and less neurotic than when I’d first seen him. But that image of him still stuck in the cage of his own mind sticks with me—not as a lesson, exactly, but as a depressing reminder of our internalized limitations.
On a possibly different early visit to the new zoo, when the new zoo was still new, I had a disquieting encounter with a raven located somewhere near the entrance. (I believe this was at the Portland Zoo; it is barely possible that this is a memory of my one visit to the San Diego zoo or the like.) In any case, I addressed him. If you’re a raven, I said, say “nevermore.” Come on, say “nevermore.” The bird stared at me, and then, with the air of somebody who had heard that one way too often, remarked, “Edgar Allen Poe.” He was silent for a moment, and then muttered somewhat less distinctly, “Edgar Allen Poe” again, as if to himself.
In April 1962 people from all over flocked to what I still thought of as the new zoo; one of the elephants, Belle, had given birth, the first elephant born in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years (or something like that). It was a big event, anyway, and I was there in the crowds that went to see him when he was first put on view. The zoo was incredibly crowded, and it was a long wait to get close enough to see anything, and when I did get to a good vantage point, Belle had interposed her bulk between us and her baby—Fuzzy Face (or something like that) they were calling him then. And then came one of the zoo moments I have never forgotten—out of the straw emerged a thin pinkish trunk, incredibly small, as the baby reached for his mother.
And that was my first and most memorable sight of little Packy—as he would soon be named. There was a contest, if I recall correctly, and I think I submitted a name myself, though I don’t recall what it was. I didn’t think much of the name chosen, but I was probably prejudiced, and in any case it didn’t matter. Packy grew to be tall, possibly one of the tallest elephants of his kind, and he had offspring, though I don’t know if any of them survive.
I saw him often on later visits to the zoo—but I won’t be seeing him again. Packy was put down the day before yesterday.

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