In an effort to forget a lost love, I am wandering aimlessly through Artis Zoo on an autumn day. Nothing better to put a broken heart into perspective, I think to myself, than the inanity of the llama, the enlightenment of the sloth, the opportunism of the chimpanzee. Animals know how to live: without compromise. The same can’t be said for me as I stumble around in a daze, trying to free myself from my mind, where I can still hear her voice, smell her lingering scent.
Elephant droppings, I tell myself, that’s what you’re smelling, nothing else. So take a deep breath, and look, straight ahead of you, the baby giraffe in the sun. Don’t think, just look. The pelicans, flapping their wings as if revolution had broken out. No wandering off now, focus. There are the penguins, which, I’ve read somewhere, are bisexual and polyamorous. My heroes.
I peer into the wild cat enclosure, searching for its inhabitants. Are they indoors, the tigers, the panthers? Are they hiding? The vegetation behind the antique bars seems more rampant than usual. The steel arches are lush with climbing plants, the stony ground is covered in moss and there are chunks of concrete lying around. There is something post-apocalyptic about this ornamental nineteenth-century cage, overgrown with foliage.
Then I see the sign: ARTIS IS MODERNIZING. Wild cat enclosures are a thing of the past, it says. The zoo is saying goodbye to its tigers and panthers. Their barred homes are to be demolished. Two other visitors reading the sign over my shoulder are mumbling and nodding their approval.
Nothing better to put a broken heart into perspective, I think to myself, than the inanity of the llama, the enlightenment of the sloth, the opportunism of the chimpanzee.
‘It was pitiful all right,’ the woman says.
‘Yes, it was,’ the man answers. ‘Want to see the monkeys instead?’
I project the image of the vanished panther into the gloomy cage, padding from left to right and back, eyeing its audience with suspicion.
My German teacher once recited a poem by Rilke about a panther in a cage. ‘His gaze against the sweeping of the bars / has grown so weary it can hold no more.’ She was red-nosed, the German teacher; a free spirit, loved to party through the night. I imagined her life to be romantic, filled with art, more booze and even more freedom. ‘Like a dance of strength around a core / in which a mighty will is standing stunned.’ She all but wiped away a tear after her galvanizing recital. The class breathless.
Why did Rilke’s poor panther move us? Because he was wild. Because he was imprisoned. Because he was wild and imprisoned. And what could we conclude from that? That you must not try to capture what is wild. Or maybe, children, the poet meant that there is something of the panther in all of us. Wild but imprisoned, suppressed.
He later decided that it wasn’t so much grief that people needed, but acceptance. The ability to immerse ourselves in the world around us, and become, wounded as we are, the mother of all wounded beings.
Apparently, Rilke and Freud met up on a regular basis, talking deep into the night, strolling through German zoos. They discussed all kinds of subjects, but especially mortality. Freud’s answer to it was grief — and not the premature grief of young, melancholy poets, but appropriate grief, in moments it was called for. Rilke was not so sure about his answer. He later decided that it wasn’t so much grief that people needed, but acceptance. The ability to immerse ourselves in the world around us, and become, wounded as we are, the mother of all wounded beings.
Never fall in love with a married man,’ the same German teacher drawled into my ear at a school party (her lips blackened by red wine, her eyes weary). I took her inappropriate advice to heart, and fell in love with a married woman. A tigress, who boasts of being wild and shackled. Insufferable. Irresistible. A force of nature. Probably read Rilke at some point, too.
I should try to immerse myself in the animal world round me, the European vultures in their gigantic cage, their deathly plumage, their rapacious beaks. But my mind keeps turning back to the tigress, wondering where she is, whether she is feeling wild in her cage, whether she knows she wounded me.
The wild cat enclosure was built in the nineteenth century, the zoo manager says in a press release about its demolition. At the time, wild cats were a key feature of the collection. They were considered the most dangerous of species, the pinnacle of creation, and their presence in the zoo symbolized the contrast between civilization and the wild.
By getting rid of its oldest and once most important animal enclosure, Artis leaves the nineteenth century behind and steps forward into the present day, in which ‘the relationship between nature and humans is fragile’. Apparently, watching frustrated wild cats through bars has become an archaic and barbaric pastime in the public mind. The animals are simultaneously too vulnerable and too wild, their imprisonment too explicit, too visible. Over the years, the bars in many other parts of the zoo have been replaced by glass, so the modern visitors can forget their progressive qualms for a moment. If you visit the monkey house these days, the black-capped squirrel monkeys (Saimiri boliviensis) are all around you, with no discernible partition between man and nature.
Watching two parrots pecking each other with their beaks (lovingly or otherwise, I can’t tell), I’m struck by a grim thought. If we’re so bent on scrapping nineteenth-century artefacts, isn’t it about time we abolish the most barbaric of them all: the monogamous, romantic marriage in all its corrupted forms? The parliament of penguins would agree with me. Just look at them, happily sliding on their fat bellies, waddling around in their uncomplicated way. No sign of jealousy or possessiveness — too cold for that outside anyway. All penguins love all penguins, right?
The hyenas laugh at me. They know I wouldn’t be so obsessed by this thought if I hadn’t, to quote the poet Annie M. G. Schmidt, wanted to put my tigress in a little box. ‘And keep you in there, keep you safe and snug / And every so often lift the lid / And look inside, and gently stroke your locks.’
In 1828, Charles Darwin visited London Zoo. He was my age, twenty-nine, and still developing his theory of evolution, though that cold, early spring day at the zoo marked a breakthrough. In order to test his theory of a link between humans and apes — still a controversial idea at the time — the scientist climbed into the cage of a young female orang-utan called Jenny. At close quarters, he watched her using tools, observed her flirting with males, searched her face for emotions. Among other things, we read in his notes that he was certain he had detected jealousy in Jenny when other apes were given more attention.
In the following months, Darwin returned regularly to observe Jenny. His findings convinced him that there was only a difference in degree between humans and apes: they had common ancestors.
Man in a cage with an ape, a fitting symbol. While Darwin probably considered his research to be purely empirical, his close contact with Jenny also reflects our tendency to anthropomorphize — that is, to attribute human characteristics to animals. In today’s ethical debate on whether zoos should be abolished, this tendency is an important argument for keeping and displaying wild animals: we domesticated urbanites need to see them up close in order to identify with them. To immerse ourselves, to make us realize we are no different from the jealous ape, the broad-minded penguin. Zoos make animals seem more human and humans more animalistic.
Though he identified with Jenny, Darwin was probably not plagued by a nagging feeling that locking her up was inhumane. Times were different. But the young scientist did have his own views on freedom and incarceration. In the same year, still twenty-nine years old, he weighs up the pros and cons of marriage in his diary. No marriage means freedom, travel (by hot air balloon!), endless interesting conversations with friends. Marriage means children (‘If it please God’), constant company, a life in London, and an obligatory walk with his wife every day. ‘Could I live in London like a prisoner?’ Darwin wonders.
After much deliberation, he finally reaches the hesitant conclusion that it is better to be safe than sorry. Marriage it is. ‘Never mind, trust to chance,’ he concludes his reflections. ‘There is many a happy slave.’
We have no way of asking the animals whether they are happy slaves. Nor can my caged tigress give me the answer: I liberated her from my phone last week. It felt like the right thing to do, as if I were selflessly promoting the emancipation of tigers.
We have no way of asking the animals whether they are happy slaves. Nor can my caged tigress give me the answer: I liberated her from my phone last week.
On the other side of the non-reflective glass, by the way, is a silverback, king of the world. Chewing on a carrot, he looks at the Homo sapiens in front of him with calm surprise. Poor creature, he must be thinking. Standing there, on the only good side of the cage — the outside — and all she can do is stare in and wonder why she would prefer to be put into a little box.