Magazine | June 27, 2016, Issue

Where the Wild Things Aren’t

Nearly 20 years ago, in a fit of misplaced youthful enthusiasm, my future wife and I decided that rather than taking our honeymoon at an alcohol-soaked, all-inclusive, combed-beached resort like sane people, we would spend two weeks in the jungles and cayes of Belize getting closer to nature.

And so we did. We strapped miner lights around our heads and trekked off into the jungle in search of jaguars, snakes, and tarantulas — what could possibly go wrong with a suburban couple being led into the dark wilderness of Central America by a third-world tour guide wielding a machete? As it turns out, not much at all. Other than some rattled nerves.

Somehow, we also got snared up in a harebrained scheme that involved taking a boat ten miles offshore, where a local instructed all of the American tourists to jump into the ocean with their flippers and snorkels and swim around with hundreds of sharks, eels, barracudas, and other menacing critters.

Now, while a man will do almost anything not to look like a sniveling coward in front of his beautiful new bride, mingling with sea monsters can surely test the mettle of even the most courageous.

“Are you sure this is safe?” I tried to nonchalantly ask the ship’s pilot, a man who had undoubtedly accomplished a great many excellent things in his life that could not be described with the words “marine” or “biologist.”

“Ha! Of course,” he replied, “they’re only nurse sharks.”


In the days before instantaneous Wikipedia access, I was unable to verify that nurse sharks were inherently timid and concluded that despite their oxymoronic name, they looked an awful lot like the kinds of sharks that tore things into bite-sized pieces on television. And by the way, since when did nurse sharks have the authority to bounce any tiger sharks that happened to wander into the area? Excuse me, there are humans here, please leave.

Whatever the case, pride overcame prudence and I jumped in. I survived. Though, as I like to imagine it, only barely. But this was my last real foray into interacting with wild animals. It was when I decided, as Woody Allen once noted about himself, that I would seek to be “at two with nature.” You should be, too.

After thousands of years of attempts to eradicate untamed beasts and/or escape their treacherous clutches, humans have gone to the other extreme, by wanting to live in communion with dangerous undomesticated animals.

A few years after my Belize trip, while I was working as a columnist in Colorado, a wolf appeared in the state for the first time in many decades. This was horrible news, obviously, since wolves and humans have shared a long, brutal, and destructive history. I reasoned that wolves should be relegated to places that humans with any sense would likely avoid. Like Canada. Many of my readers vigorously disagreed with this assessment, one going as far as to suggest that I be shot and mounted on his mantle. Now, I doubt highly that any of the PBS-bag-toting big-city-newspaper readers lecturing us about wild beasts have mantles. But I’d like to see them stare down a gray wolf before contacting me.

Anyway, I stick to zoos and aquariums — where I admire the existence of mesh fences, containments and cages, and all other advances that allow humans to observe, consider, and study animals without physically interacting with them. I do this without perceiving any moral dilemma. When I see one of those cute whatchamacallit African deer-like creatures luxuriating in the fake Serengeti only a few hundred yards from a sleeping lion, I don’t think to myself, “How can they keep these beautiful creatures locked up?” I think: “You lucky bastards.”

But I’ve begun to reassess this position. Mostly because people do not take their jobs seriously enough.

When a 17-year-old gorilla was shot dead at the Cincinnati Zoo after it grabbed a child who had fallen into its enclosure, I was saddened to learn that a major American zoo could not be trusted to put up a decent fence. The boy had somehow traversed the railing and then crawled under wires before falling about ten feet and right into the pit. The ape dragged this unfortunate child around its enclosure for ten entire minutes before zoo officials finally shot it.

A video of the incident went viral, as things do these days. An insufferable political conversation erupted around the incident, as they also tend to do. Some wondered why the gorilla needed to be shot. Some — and I’m not making this up — wondered whether the gorilla would have been shot had it been white. The White House called the incident a “tragedy” rather than a “rescue.”

The discussion should have focused on one vital issue: How does a three-year-old boy break into the enclosure of a very dangerous animal? Because this sort of thing happens all the time. Google it. Not long ago, the Indianapolis Zoo experienced something called a “code red,” a zoo-wide lockdown, when Pounce — Pounce! — a four-year-old cheetah, escaped his primary enclosure and was nearly allowed to hunt children freely.

As a father, I’ve become somewhat of an expert on the zoo. I can appreciate the lengths professionals go through to create environments that make the audience feel they’re in the animal’s natural habitat. But we have fantastic documentaries — actually, entire channels — devoted to offering us unprecedented peeks at wildlife, so just make zoos safe again: Keep the wild wild and the humans domesticated.

If you’ve ever stared down a nurse shark, you understand why.

– Mr. Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist.

David Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun, From the Revolution to Today

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