Saturday, January 23, 2010


I just love visiting zoos.

Seriously.  Every time I visit a new city, I try and make time to go to the local zoo.  I grew up in Chicago and loved the Lincoln Park Zoo (by the lake), the Brookfield Zoo (in Brookfield, IL), and the Milwaukee Zoo (in Brookfield, WI).  When I was in Beijing, I went to the zoo.  London?  The zoo.  San Diego?  Absolutely.  I have lost count of the number of zoos I have visited.

And through them all, a few things really stand out.

The first is the need to care for the world around us.  I have seen animals in cages that were little more than a prison cell and could feel their depression.  There was just no comparison to those animals that were in full habitats, and fed healthy diets.

Long overdue aside number one:  I will never forget seeing the lions in the Beijing Zoo.  It was so sad.   Some of the exhibits were amazing, and the animals were thriving, but not the lions.  I guess they hadn't renovated that cage yet.  It was about the size of my living room, and the visitors were throwing things at them through the bars.  Also, right next to them, in another very small cage, was a family of beagles (yes, the dog).  The lions there were like a case study in depression.

When I went back to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, it was the total opposite.  They had recently renovated, and the lion was standing atop a rock formation roaring out his joy.  It was inspirational.

I find it wonderful that it was the Lincoln Park Zoo that showed this to me, for that is the zoo that 'Abdu'l-Baha visited when He was in North America.  He was eager to visit a zoo as He had never seen one before.  The friends warned Him that, since it was spring, the mother animals would hide their young as soon as a stranger came up, because they would be scared.  'Abdu'l-Baha was not concerned, and asked that the friends walk a bit behind Him.  As He visited each cage, the animal-mothers brought out their young to show Him.  As soon as the friends stepped forward, they would rush to hide their young again.  (Thanks Susan, for this story reference)

Even the animals could sense the absolute love and care the Master felt for all the world.

The second thing that stands out is the need to be aware of the senses of the animals.  This is why you don't knock on the glass of a fishtank: it really, really hurts the ears of the fish.  When people counsciously design habitats that are more sensitive to the animals' acute ears and noses, then I will be much happier.  (It was quite disconcerting seeing a tapir exhibit right across from the tiger exhibit at one zoo, as tapirs are the natural prey of the tiger.  The tapirs were visibly nervous, and the tigers were definitely watching them with intent.)

The reason this is so important to me is that I do not believe we are even aware of our own senses, but more on that in a moment.

The third thing that always stands out to me is the way in which different animals show different attributes of God.  We can learn so much from them, if only we are open to it.

When Shoghi was between 2 and 4, we would go to the zoo every week.  I would pick a virtue and describe it to him in terms that he could understand.  Then we talk about the virtue in relation to plants, while visiting the conservatory, and then to animals while visiting the zoo.  The zoo keepers also got in on this, asking us what the virtue was, and then telling us how they showed the virtue to the animals, or how the animals would show it.  We learned so much during this time.  It was truly wonderful.

But going back to the second point, I have another aside.  Amidst my numerous hobbies, I used to blend perfume for people.  I would smell their wrist, in order to know their scent, and then design a perfume based around it and their preferences.  One day, I was with a friend at the Tucson Zoo, in Arizona, and we were talking about the sense of smell.  We were talking about how vision is our primary sense as humans (unless you're blind), and I was explaining that a rhino's primary sense is smell.

My friend didn't quite understand.

"Look," I said, using a word all too appropriate for the conversation, "when you smell smoke, it is a sign that you should look for fire.  Right?  When a rhino sees fire, it is a sign that he should smell for smoke.  If you look at the difference between the eyes and the nose of a rhino, you will recognize that they have far more of their body invested in that sense.  When you watch them, you can actually see that they are building their perspective of the world around their nose.  If something catches his eye, he will turn and smell, whereas we do the reverse."

To further emphasize this, I pointed to a rhino who was quite far away from us.   "Here.  Watch this."

I took a small vial of attar of rose out of my backpack and quickly opened and closed it.  The wind was behind me, blowing right towards the rhino.

A moment after doing this, the rhino raised his head (it actually shot up rather quickly) and smelled right at me.  I won't say he looked right at me, for I'm sure that he wasn't.  He then walked all the way across the field and placed his head on the fence, as close to me (or the rose oil) as possible.  I could actually reach out and touch his horn.  It was so cool.

Both my friend and I were shocked as to how quickly the rhino reacted to this, but it sure made the point.

Now, just in case you think this is the end of the story, it isn't.  I happened to be at the San Diego Zoo a few days later.  The panda exhibit had just opened, and the two pandas were seperated by a wall.  My friends and I were standing in a Disney-type line, zigging and zagging back and forth slowly moving closer to them.  To pass the time, I told them the story of the rhino, and showed them the attar of rose.

They all smelled it and said it was nice.  "But there's no way we could smell that well."

"Of  course not," I agreed.  "But we can smell quite a bit better than we think.  For example, that panda on the left," I said, pointing to the animal in the distance, "is a female."

"How can you see that far?"

"I can't.  I can smell her.  She has a female scent."

"No way," they all said.  They were not prepared to believe me, so I asked them all to take a deep sniff.

The guys in the group both smiled, saying that the scent in the air was quite pleasant.  The women both said it smelled like rancid cat pee.  The gender bias did not escape them.  The men were attracted and the women repelled.

As we continued to move in the line, and were now downwind from the other panda, I asked them to sniff again.  This time it was reversed: the men winced and the women wanted to know how to bottle it.

Not only were they now convinced, but even those around us were sniffing to see if they could tell, too.  And they all could.

Later, as we were walking down Cat Canyon, one of my friends said that it was probably just a lucky guess on my part. After all, I had a 50% chance of being right.  I sighed and stopped in my tracks.  I closed my eyes, and inhaled deeply.

"Six cages up on the right," I said, "is a civet."

My friend looked puzzled.  "And what is a civet?"

I shrugged.  "A small cat.  They use the scent from its glands in perfumery."

Needless to say, six cages up on the right, was a civet.

Now that was a lucky guess.  I could clearly smell it (once you smell a civet, you never quite forget it, kind of like a skunk), but really had little idea how far away it was.  Six seemed about right, but I never mentioned that to them.

So why do I mention all this to you, dear Reader?  Because I think zoos do offer us a lot if we take the time to learn.  I also truly believe that we have far more potential within us then we even dream of.  The sense of smell is just a minor example.

I also believe that we can learn a lot about the virtues by interacting with animals.  After all, 'Abdu'l-Baha tells us the following: (is) essential that ye show forth the utmost consideration to the animal, and that ye be even kinder to him than to your fellow man.  Train your children from their earliest days to be infinitely tender and loving to animals. If an animal be sick, let the children try to heal it, if it be hungry, let them feed it, if thirsty, let them quench its thirst, if weary, let them see that it rests.

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