I’ve been to the local zoo several times in the past year, and each visit has been a very different experience. Some zoos are better than others, both in what they have to offer and how they treat the animals, but our local zoo is often praised for both. Personally speaking, I have mixed feelings on zoo practices; some animals take to it better than others. The wolves here, for instance, always act happy when I see them. Same with the elephants, who have plenty of stimulation and interaction. The jaguars and servals appear less content, always restless and pacing.
And then there are the gorillas.
Generally speaking, I don’t like apes or monkeys. I don’t think most of them are cute, and the smell is simply unpleasant. I don’t like movies or TV shows that show chimpanzees baring their teeth in a sign of nervousness that we misinterpret as a smile, and I always feel like my distaste for these creatures is vindicated whenever I hear freakish stories of chimps ripping people apart.
Because of my dislike, I typically avoid monkey and ape exhibits. But I have a two-year-old now, and like most toddlers, she loves monkeys. So of course, we had to go. And to her delight, one of the apes was close to the side of the enclosure.
My husband and I discussed how you’re not supposed to look a gorilla in the eyes; it can be seen as an act of aggression. After seeing that viral video of an annoyed silverback cracking the glass of his enclosure earlier this year, the last thing I wanted to do was annoy a gorilla. But the lady on the other side of the glass had other ideas.
I tried to take a picture for my little one, averting my eyes every time she looked at me. She rocked forward, leaned back, tilted her head, then started pretending not to be interested–only to look at me suddenly, trying to catch my gaze. Eventually, I gave in. She leaned forward again, trying to catch my attention, and I met her eyes.
I’ve met a lot of animals, some with more personality than others. They were nothing like this. A warm, rich russet, hers were more expressive than the eyes of some people I’ve known. I saw deep thought and emotion enough to wrench my heart. I could have known from her eyes alone, but she touched her face too, expressing in one gesture what some can’t seem to say in a dozen breaths.
She was sad.
All of a sudden, it was a terrible thing to be on the other side of that glass. I knew she was unhappy, but I didn’t know why. Was it captivity? Loneliness? Missing her family? She kept looking at my daughter, was she saying she was sad because she didn’t have a baby? I couldn’t understand the why of it, and she had no way to tell me. But it didn’t matter. She was sad, and that, I understood. And then I was sad too.
I didn’t know why she’d picked me, out of all the people visiting the zoo that day, but she inclined her head, not quite a nod. My face reflected what she felt, and she seemed to take comfort in knowing I understood. Then she looked away, and she didn’t try to catch my eye–or the eye of anyone else–again.
The whole thing was fast and fleeting, something over in less than a minute. But it was moving, powerful, and reinforced my belief that while breeding programs might be important for species preservation, normal zoos aren’t the sort of place gorillas belong.