Hello everyone! I hope everyone is getting a chance to enjoy the holidays and are looking forward to the new year. I’ve been busy petsitting since Christmas ended, enjoying the holiday with my wife’s family in New York and coming out of it a few books heavier (I currently am loving Estes’ Behavior Guide to African Mammals and The Seashell on the Mountaintop by Cutler). It seems that activity has died down on my ProgressiveU blog a bit as well, but that’s to be expected; I don’t really want to get into evolution mega-posts over the vacation. Indeed, it seems that nothing constructive is being said in the previously uber-active threads that kept me checking my blog every hour a few weeks ago, but it’s nice not having to deal with creationist arguments on a daily basis. I just find it funny, however, for all the writing and attention given to my posts by anti-evolution folks, they’ve yet to explain anything scientifically and most of what’s floating around in the comments would be better off flushed (mind you, hannodb’s comments were more civil and constructive but contained nothing new and no scientific support for ID).
I did make good use of my holiday, however, and visited the Philadelphia Zoo yesterday. I love going to the zoo, although often I am often saddened by the conditions under which the animals are kept. There are always lots of parents with children going “Look at the big kitty” (pointing to a lion or tiger) as well, making sure their children get as close to the glass or fence as possible to the carnivores. Granted, little kids get front-row seats because I love to see children excited about wildlife, but I don’t think they’re really learning much respect for it or understanding how awesome these animals are. Case in point; as I walked through Big Cat Falls I came upon a young cougar sitting right in front of the glass and I got some wonderful pictures. As I sat there, children aged 3 to 10 all paraded in front of the “big kitty”, tapping the glass for a moment or two and then wandering off, losing interest in the big cat. A few teenagers pestered another of the 3 cougars in the enclosure with a stick, trying to get the cat to eat it (I’m surprised they didn’t leave with a few less fingers).
Now, if any of these people had seen this big cat while walking through the woods, taking out the trash, or going for a stroll in the suburbs (oh yes, cougars can do quite well in suburbia) I don’t think the reactions would have been the same. Sure, a lion may be fierce on the African Plains but in the zoo it’s just nothing more than a big version of a lazy housecat, most people treating it with passing interest or even overall indifference. I’m appalled by how little people know about these animals, watching them for a few minutes but not really learning anything about them, so that when children ask good questions about the animals the parents respond with outright wrong or even stupid answers. One such example was when I was passing the white rhino on display, hearing a child ask “It’s got two horns, just like a kind of dinosaur!” to which the mother replied “That’s right, rhinos are a kind of dinosaur.” Ugh…
Some may consider this post to be nitpicking, but I really am surprised by how little people know about nature and how little they take in. Dinosaur skeletons, big cats, sharks, orcas, etc. are viewed at various institutions for their inherent power, majesty, and mystery but few seem to take any time to learn anything about the animals. Kids often have a nearly insatiable appetite to know more about such animals, but parents are often ill-equipped to answer the questions, squashing the child’s inquiring spirit or feeding them faulty information. I wonder how many more eco-savvy people there would be if parents actually took the time to actually answer their childrens questions about nature instead of trying to come out with an answer to shut them up. I don’t mean such statements as a sweeping generalization, as there are some good parents out there who care about their kids actually learning something and appreciating nature, but for yesterday’s crowd at the Philly Zoo at least, it seems that the animals were little more than a cheap thrill or diversion for a sunny Thursday off from school.
Another odd encounter was had at the cheetah enclosure, where a cheetah trio (adult males often form coalitions of two or three while females are usually soliatary) was up and playing. The cheetahs were relatively close, certainly within earshot, so I decided to try and communicate with at least one of the group. You see, cheetahs make a high-pitched yelping noise that sounds like “meh!” which is “the usual call given given by females to summon hidden or lost cubs, by greeting or courting adults, or by cubs around a kill, the intensity reflecting the degree of excitement (Estes, 1991, p. 381), and since this is an easy (and non-threatening) call to make I thought I would try to say “Hello” to the cheetahs. I didn’t expect it to work, being I’m not a cheetah and would most likely mess the call up, but one of the adults sitting in front of my replied over and over to my calls, bringing a wide grin to my face. Next to me, however, was a mother and two children, and not long after my exchange with the cheetah began she said “Oh, he’s getting angry. See him growling? We should go,” alluding that the cheetah would likely jump the barrier if agitated (this thought fed by a cheetah that jumped on the roof of its habitat enclosure earlier). Cheetahs do growl, hiss, and even spit, but the simple greeting call is about one of the most inoffensive big cat noises I’ve ever heard (to get an idea of a cheetah’s vocal range, rent the film Duma, a Born Free-like tale about a boy and his cheetah). Most others watched the cheetahs walk around for a few minutes before departing, the only comment about a male cheetah that scent marked its enclosure via its urine coming from a child saying “It’s doing a wee!” I by no means consider myself an expert on cheetahs or other big cats, but there was plenty of interesting behavior that anyone with even a cursory knowledge of these animals could have observed, but instead most just passed by, arguing over if they were leopards or not, not really learning or appreciating anything. There really should be some sort of free guided tour or something to teach people more about these animals, as the informational signs put up by the enclosures (while a valiant effort) hardly ever seem to get read.
I’m sure I’ll write more about my ideas involving animals in captivity in the future (after I finish the book I intend to write on the evolution/ID controversy, I plan on making my follow-up a book about the ethics of keeping animals in captivity, tentatively titled The Dolphin’s Frown [yes, it is a reference to Gould’s collection of essays entitled The Flamingo’s Smile]). Don’t misunderstand me, I think zoos are doing a lot to help us repopulate wild stocks, show people majestic animals worth saving, and work with conservation groups (the WCS/Bronx Zoo being chief among them) but regardless of how powerful a male Amur tiger may be in an enclosure, it’s nowhere near as wonderful as the real thing in the wild. I love being able to photograph and observe big cats and other animals in zoos, but at the same time it does little to sate my desire to see them in their own habitat, where they are as they should be and not reduced to being a big housecat. I want to see a black panther slinking through the jungle for myself, not watch some poor creature pace back and forth before flopping down in front of the enclosure entrance, desperate for some stimulation from its keepers. Is that all that is going to remain of magnificent animals we’re driving to extinction? To be locked away in a zoo for a breeding program, no longer roaming the wilderness? The day we lose the tiger, the polar bear, the cheetah, the great white shark, or any number of other animals it will be truly sad for the world will be that much less wild, that much less amazing or enthralling, and we will only have ourselves to blame for the tragedy.