I often wonder about the relation or difference between the human and animal experience. What is it that makes them different from us? Why do we often value the lives of humans over those of animals? How would it be if, instead of needing our protection from poaching and human-induced habitat destruction, we really could live in harmony with one another?
This is the problem my monkey brain decides to wrestle with as I walk with my husband on a warm and sticky summer Saturday through The Nashville Zoo. Not always a perfectly ideal setup for endangered animals, zoos, like circuses, have taken some flack in the past for not being animal-centered, but rather facilities of entertainment for the gawking human visitor. Today, however, zoos often play a huge role in efforts toward conservation, working closely with specific sanctuaries and helping to spread awareness for endangered species and the ways humans can help. The Nashville Zoo is one of these places. With a mission to "inspire a culture of understanding and discovery of our natural world through conservation, innovation and leadership," The Nashville Zoo is accredited with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and draws over 960,000 people per year. They encourage family participation, offering annual passes which pay for themselves after two visits. Their website is full of information about the zoo itself, as well as highlights on species which need particular help and which ones call Nashville home.
It's an all-day affair, with well-paved trails and lovely enclosures housing a chattering, lounging or munching creature of the earth. Shops and food carts are spaced around the park evenly, without crowding the experience or being a bother, and there are special areas for children and carefully monitored opportunities to interact with some of the animals as they feel comfortable. There were some particularly impressive parrots who were all too happy to have their portraits done, and I gravitated toward them and their feathered friends with their brilliantly colored plumes.
Of course, one of our favorite bits was the tortoise enclosure, where for a token or two (bought ahead of time at the front gate) you can squat on wood chips with shining eyes and tenderly offer your complimentary lettuce leaf in the hopes of attracting the momentary affection of a tortoise. I'll bet you never knew how much joy a clothespin-full of wiltly lettuce could bring to your day. Now you do.
Unsurprisingly, I became queen of the tortoise pen and attracted not one but three - yes, three - tortoises, an achievement which will be an excellent addition to my resume and greatly impressed my husband, who pouted slightly because he only got one.
Further along, kangaroos meandered about in an open, gated area staffed with employees where visitors could walk freely and interact with the animals. The kangaroos were mostly friendly, but staff members guarded any 'roos who weren't feeling like being petted and made sure everyone was comfy.
I still wonder how animals feel about living in a zoo, Madagascar-style. My hope is that they find their lives of luxury comfortable and focus all their efforts on propagating their own species (something humans seem to have no trouble doing). In the meantime, I am thrilled to enjoy and support zoos and other conservation-focused facilities where good-hearted homo sapiens share in the task of protecting other living beings who need our help, informing and encouraging their communities to be aware, be involved, and contribute.
Maybe my monkey brain isn't up to the task of determining where the animal stops and the human begins, but I know we are all connected. And that connection is exactly what The Nashville Zoo is all about.