If We Could Talk To The Animals

20 Aug

My job on the road is a unique one. Unlike the cast and crew of the show, I am really only called into work for performances. Other than coming in a little early to receive deliveries of merchandise, which really only takes about an hour, I have my days free whereas the cast and crew often have understudy rehearsals, brush-up rehearsals, put-in rehearsals, press events, etc. that take up their days. One of the ways I keep myself entertained and active, both physically and artistically, is by visiting the zoo in every city I go to.

Years ago, I had a computer game on my PC called “Zoo Tycoon.” It was another variation of the Sims-type games in which you would build your own zoo – exhibits, public areas, etc. and care for the animals. It was actually very educational – it taught you what each animal ate and in what kind of habitat they lived in the wild. It lead me to visit the Bronx Zoo back in New York. I don’t remember my first visit there or who was with me – I’ve been so many times now I can’t keep track – but it made a big enough impression on me that I asked my parents for an annual membership for my birthday. The membership allowed me to visit the zoo whenever I pleased, granting me entrance to all of the attractions that would normally cost extra – the Congo gorilla exhibit, the monorail, etc. – and it also allowed me to bring one guest with me and 15% off food and gift purchases all around the zoo. For $100, it was a great deal, and it started my love affair with animals.

My birthday is just a few days before Thanksgiving and, until last year, I spent the holiday in New York, usually working a show or having an “orphan” Thanksgiving dinner with all my other friends who couldn’t make it home to their families. The year that my parents gifted me the annual pass to the zoo, I didn’t have any plans for Thanksgiving. I wasn’t scheduled to work. I didn’t have dinner plans with anyone. I was going to be alone, so I grabbed my little camera, hopped on the subway and headed to the zoo. It was an overcast day – kind of drizzling and damp and depressing. I called my Mom and Dad once the train went above ground and they passed the phone around to all my family members who were at our house cooking Thanksgiving dinner. My Mom and grandmother cried at the idea of me being alone on Thanksgiving, but I assured them that I was quite content to have a day to myself – just me and my camera – but the truth was, I had been feeling really lonely that day.

Once I got into the zoo, though, that lonely feeling quickly went away. There was no one in the park – I basically had the place to myself. The souvenir stalls were closed, the one restaurant that was open was being run by a skeleton crew. It was just me and the animals, but I felt completely at peace. Because the weather was cool and there were no crowds of screaming children banging on the windows, I had an unprecedented front row seat to seeing every animal in that zoo. Spending 15 minutes staring into the eyes of a lowland gorilla with your hands pressed against the 2 inches of plexiglass that separate you is exhilarating. Feeling the roar of an African lion resonating through your chest is awe-inspiring. I took out my camera and started to play.

One of my creative outlets is photography. I’m completely self-taught and I really only do it for fun, but I really can spend an entire day taking hundreds and hundreds of photos, trying out new angles, new settings and lighting. Being at the zoo with my camera is one of the few times that I am absolutely a paragon of patience. One of the things that I have learned and now greatly appreciate is that you cannot make an animal do anything – they will do what they do and it is our privilege to get to watch them do it. No amount of banging on the exhibit’s glass or shouting or yelling or whistling is going to wake a sleeping snow leopard. Chances are that you’re not going to get that lion to raise his head by roaring at him…I think he probably can tell that you’re not really a lion. And throwing things? Well, that’s just going to piss someone off, and it’s probably going to be me.

I know a lot of people have mixed or negative feelings about zoos. Many argue that keeping wild animals in captivity is cruel and detrimental to the well-being of the animals and that they should be out in the wild where they belong. Early zoos would keep large animals – bears, cats, etc. – in cages that weren’t nearly large enough and provided no stimulation for the animals. Zoos have grown and developed in the last 50 years, though. Most zoos around the country – and I can attest to this because I’ve been to a lot of them now – have moved away from small caged enclosures in favor of large, open exhibits that more accurately represent the animal’s native environment. Last year in San Francisco, the zoo created 10 tons of man-made snow for the polar bear exhibit. The Denver Zoo, with funding assistance from Toyota, just completed a $52 million dollar elephant pavilion. Rather than bars and cages, most exhibits in modern zoos are surrounded by moats and rock walls, which not only give visitors a clearer view of the animals, but also provide a buffer between the animals and the humans, which helps to reduce stress on the animals. The animals are very well-fed with a diet that reflects what they would eat in the wild combined with additional nutrients, vitamins and medications to keep them healthier than they might ever hope to be in their natural habitat. Every animal has an indoor, temperature-controlled night house to serve as protection from the weather as well as the other animals in the exhibit and the animals are under constant observation by zoo staff to ensure that they’re healthy and happy. Speaking with a docent at the Denver Zoo yesterday I learned that the zoo staff actually performed acupuncture and physical therapy with one of their sea lions to help alleviate her arthritis pain. That’s better care than a lot of humans receive.

Because of the number of breeding programs throughout the zoo system, both in the U.S. and worldwide, animals are no longer taken from the wild – the majority of the animals in zoos were born there. Zoos will typically only take in animals from the wild if they are orphaned or injured – two scenarios that would certainly leave the animal vulnerable to attack or starvation. To ensure a clean gene pool, extensive notes are kept regarding breeding and, when needed, animals will be transferred from zoos all over the world to make sure that there’s no accidental inbreeding.

Zoos serve a far greater purpose than just entertaining humans: they provide an up-close encounter with animals that we might only read about in books or see on television, thereby giving us a greater appreciation of those creatures and, theoretically, making us think twice about making choices that might endanger those animals in the wild. Psychologists have learned that it is harder for a kidnapper to hurt or kill his victim if s/he begins to view the victim as a person and not an object. Think back to that scene in “The Silence of the Lambs” where Catherine Martin’s mother goes on television to ask Buffalo Bill to bring her daughter back to her. She keeps repeating Catherine’s name and Clarice Starling says, “They’re trying to make him see Catherine as a person – not just an object.” I know that’s a kind of twisted reference, but I feel like zoos do the same thing. If you have a personal experience with a tiger or polar bear or a panda, perhaps you will be more conscious about their conservation, even if it simply means making a donation or recycling your Mountain Dew bottle.

Zoos also provide me with an absolute sense of wonder and appreciation for the sheer engineering and architecture of the animals on our planet. Consider the animals that live on the African savanna: four of the largest mammals in the world live there (elephants, giraffes, rhinos and hippos) and each are, depending on how you view things, built or have adapted to living in that environment. Giraffes can grow up to 17 feet tall so that they can reach the tender leaves higher up in the acacia trees, allowing them access to food that no other grazing animals can reach. Because their necks are so long, though, they should theoretically pass out or die from the amount of blood that would rush to their heads when they bend down to drink. They don’t, however, because there are valves the blood vessels in their necks that prevents the backflow of blood to their heads. Every one of a giraffe’s spots contains a bundle of blood vessels that release heat, helping to cool the animal in the hot African sun. I don’t care how you think giraffes got that way, but that’s pretty incredible engineering. It’s incredible to think that every animal – including humans – has a physiology that aids in our survival. I am in awe every time I look at these amazing creatures – gigantic elephants down to the tiniest of poison dart frogs. I have never once visited a zoo – even the worst ones – that I haven’t stopped and marveled at the beauty that exists in this world. It’s a very spiritual thing for me. In a way, I feel like it brings me closer to God.

Many of my friends have poked fun at me for my obsession, but I know it’s all in good fun. I’m fully aware that it’s odd for a grown man to choose to spend his day off at a zoo every week, but it’s my happy place. Being near the massive San Diego Zoo definitely figured into my choice to move there once I’m done touring. In the last 8 months I have been to 18 zoos and 3 aquariums across the country. I’ve had the rare opportunity to pet a koala, to scratch the throat of a Galapagos tortoise, to play with New Guinea singing dogs, to feed giraffes and kangaroos, to ride camels and to snuggle with one of the sweetest horses I’ve ever met. And I’ve documented the whole experience with literally tens of thousands of photos and I’m compiling them into a picture book. Here are a few of them. I hope you enjoy!

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Penguin, Ueno Park Zoo, Tokyo, Japan

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Asian Elephant, St. Louis Zoo, St. Louis, MO

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Amur Tiger, Brandywine Zoo, Wilmington, DE

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Orangutan, Audubon Zoo, New Orleans, LA

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Snow Leopard, St. Louis Zoo, St. Louis, MO

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Feeding giraffes at Zoo Miami, Miami, FL

For more information about zoos’ and aquariums’ roles in conservation, education, science and recreation, please visit the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s website at www.aza.org.

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One Response to “If We Could Talk To The Animals”

  1. Katherine August 22, 2013 at 6:46 pm #

    You are the sweetest. What a stellar thing to do with your day off. If I didn’t already know, I’d be able to tell how big your heart is by how much you care about furry & feathered things.

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