Politics & Policy

A Zoo Story

An elephant at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. (Smithsonian Institution)
Bright animals need more than a concrete billet.

Fifty years ago, four paintings by a young abstract expressionist named Pierre Brassau were displayed at a Swedish art gallery, to acclaim. A critic named Rolf Anderberg wrote: “Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination. His brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer.”

The young artist, Brassau, was very young — he was four years old, and he was a chimpanzee. This was a covert test of art critics. Anderberg stood by his remarks, saying that, chimp or not, Brassau had still produced “the best painting in the exhibition.”

Monsieur Brassau is not the only great ape to have had his imagination put on display. The ballyhooed gorilla Koko, who has a thousand-word sign-language vocabulary, invented a word for ring by combining the signs for “finger” and “bracelet” into “finger-bracelet.” When Koko met a green-winged macaw, she named him “Devil Tooth.” Evidently, the parrot reminded Koko of a red toy dinosaur she owned, named “Red Devil”; green-wings are mostly red, and macaws are famously dinosaur-ey. And as far as Koko knew, the bird’s big beak was a big tooth — a fair assumption; hence: Devil Tooth.

Parrots have some stories of their own along these lines. A psychologist named Irene Pepperberg taught an African Grey named Alex more than a hundred words; Alex could count in single digits and identify shapes. He could look at two matching objects — a couple of toy cars, for instance — and identify their differences: size, color, material, and so forth. He invented his own word for “apple”: “banerry,” because apples look like bananas on the inside and cherries on the out.

As for animal art, there have been some very avant-garde elephants; in some ways, elephants are the most compelling studies in wild IQ. Elephant literature could be its own genre — covering heroic elephants of World War II’s Pacific Theater, the workman elephants of Asia’s logging industry, the sportsmen of elephant soccer in Thailand. A conservationist named Mark Shand wrote a superb book called “Travels on My Elephant,” which recounts his story of buying an elephant and riding it across India. At the end of the book, one of Shand’s companions falls into a bonfire and badly burns his arm. At the beginning of his next book, Shand’s elephant, Tara, sees the burnt fellow for the first time in four years — the first time since the night he was burned. The first thing she does is run her trunk over his once-burnt, now healed arm — just checking up on him.

Elephants recognize themselves in mirrors. They make and use tools, ranging from fly-swatters to corks for watering holes. I once heard a story about a large African elephant who would get drunk on fermented fruit and then go around looking for trees full of baboons. He would grab a tree’s trunk with his trunk, and — to the baboons’ chagrin — shake it empty. There’s nothing funnier to a drunk elephant than an annoyed baboon.

Which is not to say that elephants are jerks; in fact, they’re famously altruistic. An elephant-operator in India couldn’t figure out why his work-phant wouldn’t drop some logs into a hole, per his instructions. The operator found a dog napping in the designated ditch; when the dog was removed, the elephant resumed work. A wild, angry elephant (possibly protesting deforestation) knocked down part of a house, and was trundling away, when he heard a baby begin to cry. He returned to the house, and, with his trunk, carefully dug away debris until the baby was uncovered (the baby was unharmed). An elephant was observed repeatedly trying to rescue a baby rhinoceros who was trapped in a mud pit — even though every time the elephant approached the rhinoceros, its mother charged.

This week, a middle-aged elephant in a Seattle zoo was euthanized; she was in such poor health that this, reportedly, was the humane thing to do. The elephant was named Watoto; according to a zoo-critic quoted by the Huffington Post, “Watoto was lame. She had arthritis, chronic bouts of colic and skin conditions, all caused by her environment.” Watoto was 45; in the wild, elephants generally live into their sixties.

A few weeks ago, I visited the National Zoo in Washington. Their elephants looked despondent, though, to be fair, it was a very hot day. The National Zoo has, among zoos, a very large elephant enclosure. In 2006, they had to euthanize one of their elephants, too. Another victim of poor health and arthritis.

They had a couple of green-winged macaws, who looked all right. The apes in the Ape House looked suicidal, dragging themselves around their smelly, straw-strewn cages. Though, as I said, it was a very hot day.

Stupid animals may not mind being in zoos, but your fancier mammals and birds need something more than concrete paddocks. I don’t know how often writers in the National Review stable side with PETA, but PETA says it “opposes zoos because cages and cramped enclosures . . . deprive animals of the opportunity to satisfy their most basic needs” — and it’s hard to disagree. There’s no zoo billet that can fill the role of a great primeval forest.

Fortunately, we in the United States have great primeval forests. Lots of them. We have 59 National Parks; six and a half thousand State Parks. A new type of zoo has been cropping up — drive-through zoos, where people stay in their cars or ride around in safari trucks; the animals have the run of the place.

The National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian; the Smithsonian is administered by Congress, and Congress ministers to us the people. Let’s take a national forest and fill it with some national gorillas.

Write to your congressman.

— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard.

Josh Gelernter — Josh Gelernter is a former columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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