# of literary mags submitted to: 0
writing progress made: my friend Allyson confirmed that an idea I had for a novel was a good one
I’m in DC right now visiting people, so this is the first bit of writing I’ve been able to do in the past few days. Yesterday, I met my okcupid penpal, Paul, for the first time. He’s awesome, and we had such a fun day of trapeze lessons and going to the zoo.
It was a gorgeous day for the zoo – blue skies and crisp fall air. Some golden leaves still trembling on the trees. It was a chilly Wednesday in early November – Paul and I had the place to ourselves.
We stood watching the fishing cat pace inside his woodsy cage. He was a magnificent creature – large and sleek with black leopard spots against tawny fur and a long, thick tail.
I recently listened to a Radiolab episode about zoos. They discussed a study that measured captive animals’ neurons and showed that animals in moderate zoo enclosures like this one were basically just as “happy” as those in much larger habitats. But what about compared to animals in the wild?
We watched the big cat take ten steps along the edge of his cage, turn around, and pace back. Back and forth, back and forth. “He doesn’t seem happy,” Paul said.
“I love seeing the animals, of course,” I said. “But I’d rather see them in the wild.” I glanced at a sign about the fishing cats. They’re endangered. Their habitats are being cut down, and the streams where they catch their food are being poisoned by toxic chemicals. They’re safer here than they would be in the wild.
We continued walking along the Asia Trail and came to the otters. The otters seemed to be loving life in their enclosure. Theystreaked through the water, pressing their little faces against the glass. Then they hopped out onto the rocks and ran in a big pack through the rest of their habitat, lopping over logs and stones and squeaking merrily. They came to the side of the cage and stood on their hind legs, looking at us curiously. They didn’t seem to mind being in a cage.
The giant panda was nowhere to be found, so we walked down the trail towards the bird house. Suddenly, I stopped and gasped. There was a buck standing in a grassy area near the trail. “Oh wow,” I breathed. His antlers were large, and the muscles in his hindquarters rippled. I started walking towards him.
“Be careful,” a voice said. It was a police officer standing near the entrance to the bird house.
I didn’t know quite what he meant. I was, idiotically, under the impression that this deer was part of a zoo exhibit.
“They’re chasing does this time of year,” the police officer said.
That’s when I realized the buck was not behind a fence. “Oh wow,” I said again.
The buck leaped over a small railing alongside the trail and ran off through the woods.
“Yeah, they just wander in here from Rock Creek Park,” the officer said. “People think they’re part of the zoo, but they’re not.”
I stared at the place where the deer had disappeared.
Paul and I entered the swampy air of the bird house. In the indoor flight room, we spotted green-winged macaws and fairy bluebirds in the thick limbs of a sprawling plastic tree. Then we went outside, across a concrete bridge towards the outside flight cage. A sign let us know that a certain type of migratory bird summers here at the National Zoo each year. Ironically, the sign said, they choose to nest in the trees surrounding the bird house.
It’s hard to know how to feel about zoos. It’s hard to know what to think about freedom.
So many people feel trapped in their lives. Maybe some people are the otters: happy – or oblivious – in their enclosures. But some people are pacing – they might not know of any other way, but they’re not happy where they are.
“I’m always trying to encourage people not to stay stuck in a life they’re not happy with,” I told Paul as we walked towards the crane exhibit. “You only have one life.” I pause. “But I know it’s much easier said than done. People have kids and houses and responsibilities.”
And it’s not just outside things that keep us from being free either. There are all sorts of fences we put up inside our own minds. Maybe we’re afraid of freedom.
I thought about earlier in the day, how I’d stood at the edge of the platform during trapeze class and jumped.
Sometimes I feel like I’m a pacing cat inside a cage. But more often I feel like one of those birds that nests in a tree outside the bird house. I look inside at the birds with little white tags around their legs. I see their dishes of feed and their heat lamps, and I think it seems nice in there. Warm and safe and easy.
But you can never really stretch your wings when you don’t have very far to fly.