Monday, June 28, 2010

Amazonia: The Enchantment of Open Space

When I was a kid, I always loved the aviary at the Detroit Zoo, in spite of its stuffy, humid air and its pervasive scent of guano—or perhaps even because of it, since that accentuated its realness. I loved it because, more than anywhere else, it came the closest to bridging the gap between the zoo and the wild. True, the animals were captive within the exhibit, but they weren’t lined up in cages—they were free to roam, to fly, to elude your view. Part of the pleasure was the search for the birds and the flush of accomplishment when you found them.

Amazonia has the same appeal for me, made even better because, 1. there are monkeys in there, which aviaries tend not to include (silly taxonomic nitpickers) and 2. the place is filled with all kinds of tropical trees, including—O most wondrous—a cocoa-bean tree, from which cocoa pods, precursors of chocolate, tantalizingly hang. I do understand that raw cocoa beans are not exactly a taste sensation (or at least not a good sensation), but my mouth still waters every time I catch a glimpse of those pods. Climbing up the stairs to this steamy pseudo-forest, the scent of leaf-flavored oxygen all around, the quiet broken by the chirrup of birds, is a magical experience, as is the sight of birds flitting though the trees almost too fast to see or the realization that the strange shape on that branch is a sun-bittern nest, complete with a female, nesting bittern. It’s remarkable and somewhat humbling to feel like a part of the habitat rather than an observer of it.

[the wondrous cocoa-pods, just waiting
to become a Lindt or Godiva masterpiece]

And yet I have mixed feelings about the Amazonia exhibit, for the same reason that I feel some ambivalence about aviaries: because there are also people in there, and cages are made not just to keep animals in but to keep humans out. When this protection is no longer present, animals become vulnerable to the deep human desire to get too close—or, even worse, to touch everything.

It’s true that in Amazonia the primary focus of this attention, a brother and sister pair of dusky Titi monkeys, are habituated to humans and will descend to a branch within an arm’s reach or less from you without being in the least concerned by your presence. But it’s also true that signs ask you to keep five feet away from the monkeys. This isn’t always possible—but you’d think the sign would suggest to people that one of the things you shouldn’t do is try to pet the monkeys.

You would be surprised at how many people—children and adults—want to do this. It’s a little strange to me; I mean, photograph the monkeys? Sure! But pet them? Not so much. Maybe because it’s so clear that this is their environment and that we humans are simply visitors who would do well to respect the creatures that belong. But most people don’t seem to consider that, or to care. They just know that the monkey is close to them, and he or she looks fuzzy. Clearly, the fact that s/he’s not running away means s/he wants to be petted.

On the rare occasions when a volunteer hasn’t been present, I’ve taken it upon myself to say (as to a group of eleven- or twelve-year-old boys and their chaperone), “Don’t touch the monkey”—adding, “It’s a wild animal; it’ll bite you.” I said this with such authority that the group started asking me other questions, assuming—in spite of my being dressed in my typical dorky-casual going-to-the-zoo outfit, camera around my neck—that I worked there. (Luckily, I was able to answer their questions and maintain my aura of omniscience). –But of course they still wanted to touch the monkey. I don’t know what would work better to convince them otherwise; should I appeal to their sense of decency, saying, “You’ll scare it”? Should I appeal to their sense of self-preservation and germophobia, explaining that these monkeys have fleas and other parasites that will jump to people if they touch them?

Not that I usually say anything. I just try to enjoy my own time there, to appreciate the magical zoo-but-not-a-zoo feeling of being so close to an animal that I could touch it.

Unless it’s the spoonbill. That thing’ll take your arm off.

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