The Standard American Diet (SAD), or Western Pattern Diet, is a recent phenomenon, born of increased industrialization that allows for nearly unlimited access to high-calorie foods with little diversity in food choices. Aspects of this diet have repeatedly been correlated with the chronic disease conditions that are so common in our culture including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and various cancers.
Walking through the zoo today, an eerie cry from above caught my attention. It was the long and ghostly call of a seagull in battle with a red-shouldered hawk. Although it was unclear what caused the argument, the gull was continually diving aggressively toward the hawk who appeared to remain unperturbed and gently swooped out of the gull’s way each time.
The gull’s screams seemed to become more forlorn and desperate as the hawk continued to glide toward its destination, ignoring each of the the gulls valiant attempts. Eventually, the gull gave up and turned to fly off into another direction, its cries continuing to echo throughout the area. Watching all this, my hearbeat changed as I simultaneously felt the desperation of the gull and the satisfaction of the hawk, feelings that come from some far more ancient part of my body and that do not require words or detailed thoughts to comprehend.
This is part of what it is to connect with animals and nature — to have moments where we can share emotions, experiences, and to learn from them about how the Earth works — to know that it is always in a balance of giving and taking, of life and death. Beautiful, breathtaking, and heartbreaking all at once.
As I was having these thoughts, I glanced around at the zoo visitors near to me. There I was obviously staring into the sky watching other beings in an intense moment of life experience and no one else had even noticed, despite the desperately loud alarm calls and all of the amazing aerial acrobatics. The people were walking along pointing at lumps of sleeping animal masses. They were showing their kids confined animals, trying to make a connection with the natural world, but missing the point and missing the amazing display of animal behavior directly above their heads.
Many people seem to come to the zoo because they want to connect with animals, they want to feel like they still have some understanding of nature. They tap the glass trying to get animals to look into their eyes and acknowledge that they exist, but all the while ignoring the animal life that is going on around them.
Animals needn’t look into our eyes to remind us of a connection to nature because it’s already there, it has just been forgotten. And the best way to remember the connection is not to try to capture the attention of zoo animals, but to reawaken one’s senses and notice that nature is everywhere and is always communicating. Like, for example, this interaction between a gull and a hawk and all that this can teach us about the balance between perseverance and of letting go.
Do these life lessons come from watching confined animals at the zoo? If not, what type of lessons do arise from watching animals at the zoo?
And when animals at the zoo do share eye contact with us, when we recognize them as individuals in their artificial enclosures and feel a connection, what does this reflect back to us? What does this say about how we relate to nature currently and how we live our lives? Are we living freely and in balance with the rhythms of nature, or have we created a system of captivity for ourselves?
What does this mean for our health and for the health of the planet?
There are a lot of loud noises in the primate building at the zoo, few of which actually emanate from the animals. I often hear the loud thumps of people banging on glass, infants screaming or crying, and people yelling “Look here!” or “Ew!” to one another.
Today I heard the loud thud of banging on glass, but it was followed by startled humans. One of the gorillas was the source of this noise and caused a group of people to jump and erupt into a flurry of alarm calls. They then proceeded to retell the story of what had happened among themselves, and I could hear them explain that the gorilla had first made a chest beating display before pounding on the glass.
After their initial shock, the people changed to laughing. Still staring at the perturbed gorilla, they were safely behind glass and could mock, laugh, and completely ignore his communication. To me, this became a poignant example of what humans are often internalizing when at the zoo — a message that humans can do what they wish to other animals (/nature) with no repercussions. We can dominate nature because we are above nature. And then we can stand back and laugh.
What kind of message about gorillas did this group of people receive? Certainly they would have a much different impression of gorillas if they had witnessed this type of display in the wild. In fact, they probably would be quite thankful for their lives (or for being at a safe distance quietly observing the display) instead of laughing. But also, they did not really learn all that much about gorillas and their behavior through this experience – especially not about their fascinating social lives and how gentle they can be with one another.
Maybe they’ll go and learn more about gorillas later because of this experience, but probably not. I think it’s more likely that they’ll go tell their friends about the “crazy gorilla” at the zoo and perpetuate the myth that gorillas are vicious and always aggressive. I’m pretty confident that they won’t spend much time thinking about the ways in which they bothered him, or what it would be like to be confined to a space where loud people are continually filtering past all day trying to get your attention.
The broader concern of this small incident, though, is that the zoo is perpetuating an even more deeply ingrained myth than the one that gorillas are always aggressive. It is a myth that may cause us our demise. The myth is that we are superior to all of nature, that we can control and dominate it, and that we can stand back and laugh when it tries to warn us of our inappropriate behavior (global warming? ha!).
We would be wise to start communicating better with nature. There will not always be a thick sheet of glass there to protect us from our stupidity.
We might start by going outside to develop a real connection with animals and nature. Yes, much of the free space for us to do that is gone and many people argue that we must go to zoos to see wild creatures, but somehow animals are still all around us. Pay attention to them, respect them, and work toward a future where we can all coexist. Nature has been speaking to us. Will we start to listen in time?