Monday, November 3, 2008

A day in the zoo

Commentary : A day in the zoo

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: November 03, 2008

MANILA, Philippines - Here in New York city, polls reveal that some 80 percent of women and a slightly lower percentage of men feel they are severely stressed by the damage done to the country’s economy in the past month. No one has asked for my advice on what to do. But if they did, I’d tell them to spend a day at the Bronx Zoo, preferably on Wednesdays when the admission is free and the park is packed with thousands of children from the city’s schools. I’d advise them to listen to the children, watch how they react to the animals and learn from them. In fact, any zoo will do, or any park, beach, woods or rural area as long as there are children and small animals. No zoo is too humble, the Bronx Zoo or Manila Zoo; any strange animal, big or small, is as good as any other.

I went to the zoo with my wife, daughter and two young special children, brothers whom my daughter teaches, and one of their friends. I was surprised first by where the boys wanted to go: the Mouse House and the Reptile House, not the gorillas, big cats, rhinos or grizzlies. The two places overflowed with little children holding hands, wandering in the semi darkness of these houses, standing wide-eyed in front of white striped African mice or tiny turtles that look like leaves and twigs, Norway rats and strange lizards, including a chuckwalla who stared back with cold black eyes. Huge, powerful men looked after the little children, teachers and parents. Some of them could have been on loan from the New York Giants offensive line. They were not very good at answering the children’s questions, however.

We overheard a little boy say to his companion in front of another exhibit, “Watch those turtles. They’re gonna eat the fish. I have a turtle, I know. Trust me.”

They waited and waited, but the turtles never moved. Two high school boys had overheard the little boy and stayed to watch. They waited and when nothing happened, one of them said, “F— it, let’s go.”

The older we get, the less patience we have with new things, animals, people or ideas.

Another group of children watched an exhibit of shrimps. One of the shrimps chased the others. “Look at that crab go,” a little boy said.

“That ain’t no crab, it’s a frog,” a friend corrected.

Another boy wanted to see the sharks. Unfortunately, they were far away in the Coney Island aquarium.

Whether it was a shrimp, a motionless python, or a mouse the children appeared to look on them as friends, as if all of us and the animals were members of one family. It is very close to the way tribal people, such as the Mangyans and Negritos, look at nature. They look with awe, respect, open-heartedness and friendship.

(On the Staten Island ferry a day later, we saw another example of children’s openness. A small, curly-haired, Hispanic boy of 3 or 4 years old tried to make friends with a family of very orthodox, Hasidic Jews. The Jewish little boys had ritual locks of hair falling by their ears and wore brown and white clothes that looked like uniforms. They looked shy and not used to carefree ways. The little Hispanic boy ran around them and even put his head in the family’s baby carriage to kiss the baby. For him all kids were friends and family. The Jewish children were surprised at first, but soon they, too, were all playing.)

At around 12, we heard children all over calling for lunch so we went for hotdogs. Later, the two smaller boys with us bought foot-long rubber snakes. One of the boys told us he was going to put the snake in water and when it grew to be 14 feet long, as he was sure it would, he’d give it to his mother. There was no suspicion his mother might not want a 14-foot snake in her house.

The biggest excitement was caused by a peacock running loose among the children.

We watched sea lions torpedo through the water in their pool. A small Afro-American boy told us, “My grandma swims like that. My mama, too.”

We walked in the sunshine with the trees turning red and yellow and the air full of the aroma of flowers, popcorn and cut grass, and then we went to the Siberian Tiger exhibit where the tigers roam on a hillside and the people view them through a glass wall. The tigers pacing the hillside sometimes came only inches away from the little children who had their faces pressed to the glass. One tiger grew in size as he came nearer the glass wall until he looked enormous. “Tiger, tiger, burning bright…” Adults backed off, but not the children. They waved. The Burmese have a saying that may relate to the children’s reaction: “A tiger never kills an innocent person.”

We have alienated ourselves from nature, so much so that the weather and animals (except household cats and dogs) have become just problems we have to deal with. This attitude has closed us off from large branches of the family God has given us. We have filled in the vacant space with concern for money and power. We can recover the proper point of view by watching the children—they teach us that there is more to wonder at and cherish in nature and one another than money or power can offer.

We walked out of the zoo at the end of the day, very content. The lines of little children still holding hands walked along beside us. The children looked happy but very sleepy, and I knew the big men watching them would have quite a job getting them all home safely. But no one would regret the day.

Denis Murphy works with Urban Poor Associates. His e-mail address is

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