We went to the Seattle zoo. I hadn't been to a zoo for pretty close on 30 years and expected it to be much as it was in the third grade. Soviet-era cement bunkers locking down the whimpering remains of once proud animals. Each going through their own hellish version of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest minus the good friend who's handy with a smothering pillow; plus various attempts to get them to mate with other animals, who, while the same species, are complete strangers.
I don't know if I looked forward to this overmuch. Although there is some magic in seeing an elephant in the flesh; even with the hollowed out stare of someone long past wishing for death, I'm not sure there is enough magic to keep me excited for the 3 hour drive. Mind you, these are all memories added onto my memories as a child. Who knows what I thought back then, now through the tinted glasses of a purportedly sane, responsible, socially conscious adult.
The Seattle Zoo, however, is not the cement zoological gulag I remember of my youth. It's all made exceedingly natural, so where there was once concrete bunkers there's now rolling hills and hidden pools and, quite frankly, far more land than there is animal. It's like a Where's Waldo featuring charismatic megafauna. You get to experience the joy of birding (uncertain identification, natural surroundings, sporadic somewhat embarrassing excitement) and the joy of public events (overpriced concession, the click of numerous SLRs all firing at the same moment, cleverly hidden washrooms) rolled into one!
The various staff and plaques announce the animals are quite happy. Their objectivity isn't to be relied upon, I'd imagine. However, regular feedings without the alarming ritual of predators thinning your herd or poachers trying to provide material for a 3000 year old recipe for Viagra has to be somewhat better? The kids seemed to enjoy it. The animals didn't seem scarringly depressed? I'm not sure.
There didn't seem to be a whole lot of rhyme and reason to which animals they liked. Terrified of giraffes, not at all put out by panthers. A panther that could kill them and then carry their lifeless corpse in its mouth while it cleared a 6 foot fence not that, as a father, I'm hyper aware of every single danger that may or may not happen to my children no matter how slight the chance. Not so scared of tiny green Amazonian frogs which could kill our entire family with a sneeze. Scared of an unidentified sharply coloured jungle snake that... ok, well, that made sense.
There were some exotic things that I was sure were just urban legends perpetuated by a recurring misprint in a reference edition of the Encylopedia Britannica (Tapirs, I mean, really), and then not so exotic things (wolves (which they put on the same field as elks? was this just to keep both of them on their toes? Do elks live more healthy lives when harried by endless anxiety? Are they the Woody Allens of the temperate herbivores?)).
There was even a bear. A great massive hulking bear. Bears, actually. And they were gigantic like what you imagine they'd be if you were three and just saw Omaha's Wild Kingdom, on an IMAX. Volkswagen sized. So massive that the idea of them opening up a mini-van at Yellowstone because someone left a bucket of KFC in there takes no imagination whatsoever.
The zoo designers had a bit of a ball with the bear enclosure. First you see it from a great way off and think, 'Huh, big bear'. Then there's another viewing part, this time under a rock, and it's a bit closer, and you can see the mini-van crushing teeth turning a whole salmon into a pink slurry. And then finally there's a viewing area that's right up against the water where the bear is eating. Close enough that my mind started doing faulty arithmetic and laughably misinformed load bearing calculations with regard to mini-van destroying omnivores and whatever plexiglass grade they use to build the enclosure.
It's a strange thing to trust your life to the whims of an engineer who may or may not have thought of everything when creating a barrier between your family and thousands of pounds of muscle that would eat you as an afterthought on the way to getting a snack.
Are there zoo engineers? Is it terribly rigourous? Do they, at the last second, move the bears to the flamingo sanctuary and the pythons to the duckling alcove because of some marketing head's idea?
I have no idea. There is some charm, it might be said, for concrete gulags.