April 24, 2005

Copito de Nieve: Remembering Barcelona's sad Snowflake

Today is the last day of April school vacation. Adam’s home from Greece. (He bought me a white stone Cycladic goddess to join the other two goddesses, Greek and Maltese, atop the green marble table in our living room. He read the “Fat Lady of Malta” post before he left. Cool kid.). He and the other high school Argonauts had a fabulous journey. (Cruise the March archives for 10 posts about places the group visited on their Greek odyssey.)

While her brother was in Greece, Dana hung out with friends, went to the mall, spent a weekend on Cape Cod with pal Emily, had a sleepover, listened to music, watched TV, ate macaroni and cheese, jumped and cantered her way through a riding lesson. And went to the zoo.

For weeks, she’d been telling me how much she wanted to go to the zoo, so I took her and friends Alyssa and Micaela to Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo, dusted up, refurbished and proud of its place in Franklin Park, the first jewel in Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, a string of green places that run from Boston’s heart to the Charles River. Ten years ago, the area was dangerous. Today, the Olmsted and Vaux-designed park is an active urban space that attracts golfers, track teams, walkers, runners, birdwatchers, sunseekers, picnickers, hikers, history buffs, families and zoo-goers.

The girls took off to find giraffes and, probably, 13-year-old boys, so I ventured into the Tropical Rain Forest, a soaring white structure that looks like two sails of the Sydney Opera House welded together. I came to the Western Lowland Gorilla exhibit and watched a new mother cradle her baby and drag it along the floor as she rustled through straw and grass looking for food tidbits. Spectators stood three deep trying to catch a glimpse of the newborn lying cupped in his mother’s great hands. He looked up at her with love and awe. Most of the time, mom had her back to us, as if hiding her baby from our prying eyes.

In the far right corner of the exhibit, which tried, like all well-meaning zoo exhibits, to be a comfortable, happy place for its prisoners, I saw another gorilla. Maybe he was the dad, maybe not. I stepped away from the crowd and stood near him. He turned his head and looked deeply into my eyes. He radiated a sadness that was utterly human. For seconds that felt like minutes, we stared at each other, he telling me something, I trying to tell him that I understood.

The sad gorilla reminded me of Snowflake, Copito de Nieve, who was euthanized by the Barcelona Zoo in November 2003. Snowflake, the world’s only albino gorilla, had been suffering from melanoma since 2001. Taken at age three from Equatorial Guinea, Snowflake, who died at 40 – 80 in human year equivalent – spent 37 years in captivity in his Spanish zoo-jail.

Adam, Dana and I visited Snowflake before he died, and we came away sad. I felt guilty at having paid to see this magnificent creature penned behind glass in a small space. I felt guiltier at having taken my children to see him. There was nothing happy about Snowflake. When he looked at us, it was with scorn, but most of the time he didn’t look at us. He sat, with his back to the “audience.” I wondered how early in his 37 captive years he’d learned that response to his situation. And I wondered whether I could be as strong as Snowflake, were I to lose my freedom as he did. I think I would long since have beaten my head silly against my cage’s Plexiglas walls or found a way to break through them.

I dislike zoos. Especially zoos in old, world-class cities like Barcelona that brim with rich cultural, historical and artistic treasures. Barcelona doesn’t need a zoo. There’s too much else to see and do there. Wild animals don’t belong in downtown Barcelona. If someone released them tomorrow, I venture no one would miss them.

Dana, as those who follow this blog know, is a true lover of animals. She relates to them and they to her. I've seen it scores of times, and it's uncanny. On the day we visited the Franklin Park Zoo, I bet the animals sent a secret message through the place, letting all the residents know that the girl, Dana, the animal whisperer, was in the park. I think Dana would be an awesome zoologist because she feels what animals feel. As long as we have to have zoos, perhaps she could work to make captivity, whether in Barcelona, Boston or elsewhere, a little easier for gorillas – and giraffes, leopards, lions, bats, tapirs, warthogs, wildebeest, ibex, camels, zebras, kangaroos, lemurs, prairie dogs, snakes, mandrills, peacocks, turtles, cockatoos... all the sad Snowflakes.

Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America