Saturday, November 19, 2011

Lions, Tigers, and Bears...Oh My

It is said that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. And I'm pretty sure that the way to a girl's heart is via anything adorable, be it baby or furry, or if you're lucky, a furry baby.

Or maybe that's just me. I'm a sucker for a good kitten or puppy YouTube video. In real life, I sense the presence of animals, honing in on them like a heat-seeking missile. And I can't leave them alone. I must 1) squeal with delight, 2) talk to the owner about every last detail of his/her pet, and 3) love up on the animal. Likewise, if I see an animal without a proper human guardian, then I'm all worried and can't stop thinking about it.

So Tobe scored mad boyfriend points for deciding that we should go on a date to Spokane, Washington's one and only zoo dedicated to big cats: Cattails. Located just off the Newport Highway, Cat Tails is tucked into a stand of pine trees, and it's about as far from the animals' typical habitat as you can get. The driveway is fence-lined with blown up pictures of the sorts of big cats housed in the zoo itself. There was also a banner announcing that you could spend Thanksgiving at Cat Tails, where they apparently have a turkey toss. I imagine that being initially fascinating for spectators and then becoming a bit too grisly for the young and the squeamish. It also brought out the first fascinating debate between my boyfriend and me: are the turkeys frozen? Do they literally toss them at the animals? If they're frozen might it not result in a concussion if mis-thrown? Most certainly it would be a Thanksgiving to remember.

For $8, visitors get to walk within 8 feet of the animals. Visitors can wander around on their own, or they can take a guided tour. We happened to arrive shortly after a group of children and their stroller-pushing Stepford mothers (the zoo's blog promotes that "infants that cannot possible escape from the stroller or infant seat" get in free). We could have broken away from the crowd of little ones, but we decided to tag along.

It was snowing, and I couldn't stop thinking that the majority of these animals weren't meant for snow. A tiger from India is not supposed to know cold like this. And the cold made for finicky cats. The tour guide called our attention to a bobcat. We all peered into the 10' x 10' enclosure and saw nothing. The tour guide remarked that it was cold outside and that this particular cat was old. Eventually the old girl came out and rubbed herself along the chain link. She struck me as stiff, humped up against the cold, and bored.

Over and over, we heard similar stories of origin from the tour guide. The key theme in most stories was hubris or God-Complex. Men thought they could have a wild animal as pet and then eventually realized they were in over their heads. The cute cougar or tiger cub later grew up and became harder to handle. Over and over, she told stories of human ineptitude. She told of animals confiscated from places where animals were in small, dirty, "excrement-filled" cages. I wondered how much of this the small children were taking in. I didn't hear any of them gasping in horror. I didn't see any of them looking for comfort from their mothers. In fact, I'm not sure how much the kids were taking in except that I could hear the words "cute" and "pretty" being tossed around liberally.

The children did notice some things. When the tour guide asked if there were questions, it seemed the children most often noticed physical troubles. One noted that a spotted leopard had a "ouchie" on the end of its tail. The tour guide explained that sometimes they get bored and worry the same area too much until they make a sore, or the hair falls off. There were too many stories about things falling off. None was more disturbing than the cougar with the stubbed tail. When one of the children pointed out how the cat seemed to be lacking in the tail department, the tour guide told the story of how it had gotten frost bite on the tip of its tail. The frost bite perhaps bothered the cat. The next morning, it had chewed of 8 inches of its tail.

Among the things I'll remember: wondering what it would be like to be a tour guide, my back turned to these beasts, feeding them chunks of chuck roast on what looked like a dull skewer. I wonder if I would be tempted to call them cutesy nicknames like she did. I wonder if I would be comfortable clanking my keys against their cage in order to get the animals to make an appearance.

I will remember the black bear whose nose seemed like an ant eater's. I couldn't get over its range of movement. They found him in the Spokane area in an orchard. I remember two boys having a snowball fight. I remember the white tiger taking everyone by surprise by sounding a growl that no one expected from cats gone docile in captivity. I remember 3 Siberian siblings pacing their cage in unison. It looked like Vegas showgirls or can-can girls, and I expected them to put their paws on each other's shoulders and kick and perhaps to don a top hat. I remember the flocks of birds in the tiger cages and wondered if the cats ever killed birds. I marveled at how the birds didn't seem nervous. I noticed the tiger sleeping who opened one amber eye to gaze at us. I will remember the huffing sound of the lion and how his mane reminded me of an 80's hair band. I will remember the dreadlocks hanging from his belly. I will remember Tobe's plan for his own zoo. He said he wouldn't have any animals at all. He would simply lead people through, and when they asked where the animals were, he'd make excuses...that they were sick or sleeping.

It's crazy, but it just might work.

1 comment:

  1. What a sad post this is. I thought zoos like this were a thing of the past with a concentration now on breeding species in captivity to be returned to the wild or to other zoos, or of open range zoos where you visited their territory and were in danger if you left the vehicle.

    Despite this the post was beautifully written and I was happy to walk with you (and Tobe) as you spent your time there.