for samantha

I have a thing for gorillas, but not for zoos, so it’s been years since I’ve had the pleasure of being in the presence of Charles, Samantha, et al, denizens of the Toronto Zoo. And it was a pleasure. I marvelled at how, unlike the orangutans—and people—the gorillas carried themselves with such dignity, grace despite their size, and purpose. 

I remember trying to lock eyes with them—not easy—but when it happened, instead of the thrill I’d expected, I’d feel suddenly humbled by my stupid aim. So now we’re looking at each other, so now what? the gorilla seemed to be saying. Good point, I thought. It’s all about control for us humans. I got you to look at me. I win. This is how small and daft we are by comparison—while they spend their time in much more useful pursuits. Picking nits off each other, for instance.

My anti-zoo stance has been gradual, strengthening every time there’s a sideshow-like marketing campaign to announce the koalas or pandas or dancing white tigers are in town. Or some other spectacle—how about an authentic African Savannah, right here, in Toronto? Because we can all believe that can’t we? Imagine the smiles on the faces of all those African animals…

No one ever mentions the polar bears are still pacing, the elephants are eating jellybeans and the whales are going stark raving mad.

When I heard that Samantha the gorilla died this morning, I felt unexplainably sad and overcome with a kind of regret—the sort one feels when an old uncle passes away who, for whatever reason, you’ve neglected visiting and now it’s too late and you realize you’ve missed something.

While I’d rather learn about exotic animals from books and films produced by a handful of serious folk who respect and study them, than from invading their territory as a ‘tourist’ (eco or otherwise) or hauling them out of it into ours, I recognize that there is something magical when that connection between human and animal is made. At least for the human. I do believe we can be the better for it. It might even have been one of those connections with one of the Toronto gorillas that started my own ‘thing’ for them. And I guess that’s not entirely bad.

Even so, I can’t support zoos, at least not the run of the mill variety that allow for the import of camels and giraffes to Ontario and the export of dolphins to Asia and the Middle East. However, if they were designed to house indigenous animals only, and then for reasons of rescue, safety and rehabilitation, only, well, that would be a beast of a different colour. Our relationship with animals should be something special—when it happens it’s a gift. It shouldn’t be on tap for us to view as merely an ‘exhibit’, as if the very purpose of animals is to entertain us. And oh, of course, teach us. Mustn’t forget how much we’re constantly learning at the zoo and on safari and watching seals jump through hoops while we nibble on hot dogs and wonder what time the elephant rides start. If we really wanted to learn about animals, how about starting with the ones right around us? Cats, dogs, horses, foxes, coyotes, deer. Or how about the ones we eat—chickens, cows, pigs, lamb. We could do well to understand them a bit more and how we all affect one another, before we line up to watch a whale in a tank in the name of education.

Co-incidentally (I love a good co-incidence) I recently found an excellent book (Gorillas, by Sara Godwin) at the Sally Ann that I’m anxious to pass along to my young niece who has yet to discover the brilliance of gorillas and still thinks they’re scary, a la Godzilla or King Kong (unfair myths if ever there were any). I plan to give her a DVD of Gorillas in the Mist at the same time, and any good documentaries I can find, and then maybe after we’ve read and watched and talked—maybe I’ll take her to the zoo to pay our respects to Samantha’s friends and family.

I’ll tell her why I don’t much like to go there, as well as the magic of making connections, and she might get what I’m saying or she might find me tiresome and un-fun, but either way, I’ll let her take it from there to wander her own path because, ultimately, that’s all any of us can do.

Except the animals of course.


“As thoroughly as Homo sapiens as a species has earned James Joyce’s painfully accurate description of “manunkind”, so Gorilla gorilla gorilla deserves the title “gentleman” in a way few humans can honestly claim.”—from Gorillas, by Sara Godwin, Friedman Group


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