There seems to be a theme going on in my life: one that consists of tigers. After watching and laughing at Bollywood’s rom-com, “Ek Tha Tiger,” and picking up Téa Obreht’s “Tiger’s Wife” for some leisure reading, I decided to visit a real tiger at Bronx Zoo but ended up going crazy (as usual) for the birds.
I am a birdwatcher in New York City, but like most people, I was anticipating the large animals when I went to the zoo. But the lions, bears, and tigers (oh my!) were snoozing in the summer heat. The tigers were sprawled on their backs; the lions kept distant on a faint plateau above their natural deer-ish prey, grazing unmolested; and the polar bear, white and iconic, dozed with out-flung limbs on the rocky shore near his artificial pool. He remained stubbornly deaf to the human, zoo-going horde screaming and gesticulating wildly beyond his enclosure. It was if we were the ones trying to impress him and not the other way around.
But why should we be impressed?
It wasn’t as if I had gone to a circus. If I were one of those animals baking in the sun, penned in, with limited space to roam, I too, would be making do with my boredom by sleeping far away from prying eyes. That was what one pair of monkeys did by sitting with their tails intertwined like conspiring lovers and with their backs turned resolutely to the bars of their open-air cage.
Of course, there is the exception to every rule; some of the more solitarily confined animals, like the condors, seemed to relish attention, spreading out their wings to be admired in their exhibits. Not surprisingly, my favorite place at the zoo was The World of Birds, a whole building devoted to smaller birds in exhibits that were sometimes walled behind scrims, or glass, but most wonderfully, not at all. (Also, the illusion of putting a smaller creature into a vulture-sized space made the trap seem positively roomy.)
Children were often delighted and could not help exclaiming, bewildered, that the birds could fly out, but signs posted above these mesh-less and glass-less aviaries assured zoo goers that birds liked where they had light, food, and shelter and that nothing in the bare halls was attractive enough to make them go wandering. I wondered of course, because I did see one bird in an exhibit that it did not belong to. The informational plaque for it, which had the bird’s name, a few facts, and a picture of its likeness, was further down the hall, above another display. I thought of the bird flying or hopping around the corridor like a spy between lulls in human traffic and felt giddy with delight. Sneaking around for the birds didn’t seem too far-fetched, especially compared with the sluggish felines I had glimpsed in the zoo earlier in the day.
Here in the building, the birds were in controlled temperatures and some of them were lively, flitting to-and-fro. The pheasants walked back and forth along the glass, people-watching. A puffin swam bobbingly with its beak pressed against his window as if trying to reach the person standing in front of him. A toucan darted around to get a better view of one passerby who decided to play peekaboo by walking repeatedly to the avian’s window and around the walls that edged it. And there was one poor quetzal that had a roost right up against the pane, bearing the red lights and flashes of cameras stonily.
That was what was both joyous and sad about the zoo. It is hard to care about a distant animal in Africa, the way you would care about a pet dog or cat, and I think zoos really do help in bringing these animals to immediate life and in aiding wildlife conservation efforts. But something about seeing a captive animal removed from its natural habitat (no matter how well the new environment is simulated to be the real thing) remains like a spectacle. I fell in love with birds years before I began actively bird-watching. I didn’t fall in love with birds because I saw them on television, but because I used to go out and feed pigeons, like many others did, as a child. But a pigeon and a white-fronted bee eater are not quite the same, and although you won’t see the latter pacing down your city street and trying to beg lunch off of you, you can always take the number 5 train up to the Bronx Zoo.