This weekend, I helped Emily get even with her sister, who last year had gone with me to Washington D.C. Both girls accompanied me on a trip, ostensibly to take a pair of students to Powershift, but also to visit a college friend and get a sampling of the city of museums and monuments. Our first stop was the National Zoo. Is it irony that our National Zoo's most exciting feature is a collection of animals from China? Or is it simply a reflection of what parents know, that everything our children love here in the U.S. comes with a "Made in China" label on it?
I've always had mixed feelings about zoos. As a horse lover from early childhood, I recognized the frenetic pacing behavior of zoo animals as a sign of boredom and small space - though the cheetah pacing next to the zebra pen at the National Zoo on Saturday may have had other motivations. And yet, I would have to spend weeks and countless pounds of carbon to see meerkats, zebras, Prezwalski's horse, lion tamarins, red and Giant pandas in their native environments. I don't like the concept of wild animals caged, but I still love seeing the animals.
In the last several years, zoos have done a much better job of linking animals to children in an empathetic way. At Chicago's Lincoln Park zoo, a log crosses the glass between apes and children, and primate cousins play, seemingly together, on the same tree. Here in Pittsburgh, tunnels under the meerkat exhibit allow children to crawl underground and pop up in the center of the meerkat community, to the seeming mutual entertainment of both species. At the National Zoo, bamboo-lined spaces and fences delimit the boundaries of children and pandas, for the safety and entertainment of both. (Also in D.C., the meerkats delighted Emily by appearing to try to climb up her jacket from the other side of their glass - as a National Geographic editor once noted, "You can't have too many meerkats.")
Such entangled mutual restrictions between animals and children go beyond zoos, though. What is the difference between wilderness and zoo? Is it the size of the field or the pavement on the sidewalk? The narrow path from our backyard to the community center is just as bare, just as compacted, as the dusty ground the cheetah paced just beyond the wary zebras. My daughters' home range in Pittsburgh, while large by the scale of D.C. children is still far less than the miles open to children of previous generations. My daughters' outdoor cage, much as I try to expand it with trips and hikes, is almost certainly still too small.