In the twelfth grade when I felt trapped by other girls, school, shyness, New Jersey, and being seventeen, there was at least some poetry. I could write it, sort of, and I could read and memorize it, recite it to my few friends, and write about it. I was not quite able to see myself in it, only see that I liked making it. Not until years later did I note that when given an assignment in English class to write a paper comparing two poems we hadn't covered in class by two of the poets we had, I wrote a paper on trapped animals. I loved the language of the poems, ("matted hyacinthine curls"; "A pip of life amid a mort of tails") and I loved that they were about lone animals--an easier subject for me to deal with in an all girls school than love. One poem was "The Bull" by William Carlos Williams and the other was "The Bird with the Coppery, Keen Claws", by Wallace Stevens. Lone volatile bull stretching in the grass and chained to a fence, and lonely, bored parakeet with sharp claws and useless wings. Luckily, I broke out to college the following fall.
It still bothers me that earlier this week Knut, a four-year-old polar bear died of brain damage because his ferocious wild nature was trapped alone in a Berlin zoo; apparently, the psychological equivalent of being bashed over the head. Rejected by his 30-year-old mother, he imprinted onto a zookeeper, a man mother who inadvertently rejected him by dying a year later from a heart attack. No other polar bears, no arctic tundra, no seals, no man mother. Crowds and crowds of spectators he grew to need and be panicked without, much like the starlets of popular culture.
I do not like going to zoos, even ones as advanced in the way they accommodate animals as The Bronx Zoo is, and even though I know that a certain species of deer, extinct in China, has a population there. I understand the benefits of keeping a few animals to inform the public that these species are worthy of a place on earth, and that place is not in the zoo that is demonstrating this. I get that the sale of fake fur toy animals contributes to conservation. There are more tigers in captivity in the world than free in the wild, and not all of that captivity is run by animal behaviorists and zoologists. Some of the tigers in captivity are lucky to be in zoos, it is true. The alternative to raising Knut, the bear cub, without its mother was to euthanize it.
Studies show that zoos work better than documentaries to turn citizens into activists against extinction, encroachment, and cruelty. But I like words. I like reasoning. Tigers in the Snow, by Peter Matthiessen, for instance, accompanied by photographs by Maurice Hornocker, follows the disappearing Siberian tigers and argues for their rights. We the Creatures, edited by C.J. Sage and published by J. P. Dancing Bear at Dream Horse Press, includes "Bears in China" by Ellen Bass--featured poet in the new APR--about the horrific harvesting of bear bile for shampoo while the animal is still alive. Difficult to accept, but more urgently expressed.
Perhaps adolescence was the well intentioned zoo, and adulthood my poetic tundra.