Friday, March 22, 2013

Going Ape; or Stories I Like, Yet Am Not Entirely Convinced They Are True, Part Five

You don't exactly have to be a card-carrying member of PETA to have weird feelings about zoos. I mean, imagine - you're some huge animal, just chilling in Africa or South America, just being all majestic and wandering wherever you want when somebody shoots a tranquilizer in your ass. Next thing you know you're enclosed in a pen the size of a living room and getting stared at and photographed by human families.

Some of my conflicted feelings probably come from growing up in the '70s in the tail end of 'private zoos.' I'm not sure if these were all over the country or just the South, but I remember my dad pulling over so we could look at a sad black bear pacing on a cement floor in a little barred cage out in the middle of nowhere. Even though it was cool to see a bear up close, I remember thinking he didn't look too happy in his new home.

Modern zoos do a lot of work in conservation and education, and the habitats for their animals are close to what the animals are used to, rather than a homemade cage baking in the Florida sun. Plus, with loss of natural habitat, you could make a case that the animals are safer in captivity than in their home; sort of like a witness protection agency.

This attention to large, natural enclosures is a fairly recent development. In fact, in the story I heard, we'll have to go back, back to a time of more primitive zoos. Back to the '70s. Or possibly the '80s. I've heard it both ways.

Back then the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa was like most zoos of the era, in that they still had cages instead of habitats. Except for the lions, as we've learned from Goodfellas. Most animals adjusted to their lives behind bars. Except for the orangutans. Using their smarts and Beast Strength, the apes would wait until the keepers went home, reach out of their cages, bend the locks and take off through the streets of suburban Tampa.

This always cracked me up, because I always pictured families sitting down for breakfast glancing outside at an ape just truckin' down the sidewalk.

After a while the keepers figured out what was going on and created more moats and stuff, saving families from marauding orangutans.

This sort of thing happened all the time in Tampa.

I have no idea where I originally heard this story, but like the Elvis story, I've used it for years. If I was at a fancy dinner party or event, and someone mentioned zoos, or apes, or orangutans, I'd have a great little story to bring out. And yes, that happened more than you might think.

But is it true?

Well, sort of.

Apparently I was off on the date. According to "Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives" by Thomas French, the great escape was in 1991, which for some reason isn't as funny. Basically, Rudy, a young female orangutan was having trouble fitting in with the rest of her ape roommates. She climbed a tree out of the enclosure and willingly surrendered when French showed up. It's actually kind of sweet.

As for overall truth, I'd have to give this one an almost true. There was an orangutan that got out, but the best part of the story to me was the orangutan snapping the lock and wandering down the streets, which resulted in subtracting some points from the overall score.

We hold things to a very rigorous standard of truth here.

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