Saturday, July 10, 2010

Great Apes

Whenever I visit the orangutan or gorilla exhibits at the zoo, I can’t help but feel a little guilty. Of course I go anyway—apes are fascinating to watch, maybe more fascinating than any of the other animals at the zoo, even when they’re only eating or sleeping or staring into space: it’s mesmerizing to see species that are so different from and yet so much like us. Twice now, from different people at the gorilla pavilion, I’ve overheard the same very interesting comment: “They look so real—I mean, they look so human.”

It’s that similarity, along with their dignity and intelligence, that draw me to them and at the same time make me uneasy around them: watching them feels uncomfortably voyeuristic, as if I were spying on my neighbors. Only it’s a little different, isn’t it, because it’s not covert: on the contrary, you’re staring openly at these other animals—these other individuals—and it’s incredible how, when they look at you, they really look at you, and meet your gaze. But, for me at least, it’s hard to always meet their gaze in return. I find myself thinking, What right have I to be on the outside of this enclosure while they’re on the inside? Why should I be able to walk away from people making “Oooh ooh oooh” noises while they have to listen to them all day? (And I am filled with an almost irresistible desire to point out to said people, “Have you noticed that you, and not the apes, are the only one making those noises?”)

I know the National Zoo has some state-of-the-art facilities, and the Think Tank is designed not just to study ape intelligence but to give the orangutans something interesting to do. And I know that, given that so many ape species are threatened or endangered in the wild, zoos offer the equivalent of protective custody to these animals. And, of course, I am pleased and excited by the opportunity to see them, and I do go look at them almost every time I visit the zoo.

I even take pictures of them fairly often—in spite of the disquiet that it sometimes awakens in me. The other morning I found myself wondering how I would feel if, as I was wiping sweat off my nose (a regular occupation for me in this weather, alas), one of the gorillas snapped a candid picture of me. –Not that I’d be all that surprised that the gorilla was capable of taking photos: but wouldn’t I consider it a violation of my privacy, even in a public space?

I don’t take pictures of them rubbing their noses or anything like that—not that I think they’d care, really; I don’t want to suggest that they have the same concept of privacy, or of what’s embarrassing, as I do. I don’t take pictures of them in those moments because it makes me feel even worse, even more exploitative, than I otherwise do.

There have certainly been moments when I’ve felt a thrill of connection with an orangutan or gorilla. And walking through the gorilla pavilion in the morning, when no one else is there, and just being there with them—not taking pictures, not even necessarily looking at them—I experience a rare sense of peace. But I can’t get over the ambivalence I feel around them.

And, really, maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe the only way to really pay respect to them is to want to watch them but also to question my reasons for, and my ways of, watching them. Maybe the only way to do justice to them is to recognize that there should be something more for them than these enclosures, that this interaction—that we owe them, and their kin, something better.


pattinase (abbott) said...

That first picture is incredible. He has as much dignity as any head of state.

Olivia V. Ambrogio said...

They do, don't they?
That one is actually the baby's mother; I took several good pictures of her but liked this one, which seems the least candid, the best.

pattinase (abbott) said...

A mother. Even better.

Barbara Martin said...

I find the facial expression of the female to reveal a resigned digust at being on display. The last photo seems to me that she's wondering how did she manage to be caught. Was she caught in the wild? Or born in a zoo or game farm?

Olivia V. Ambrogio said...

That's a good question; I don't know where she came from. I believe that she was born in captivity because of something I overheard a volunteer telling people, but I can't say for sure.

Of course, she may also just be wondering why people are making stupid noises at her...

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