Monday, June 17, 2019

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The Zoo Itself (An Investigation)

Yesterday I went to the Berlin Zoo because I wanted to see animals and also children. And it was the first sunny day in quite a while, so one wanted to be outside rather than inside one of the many museums that (like the zoo itself) are must see tourist Sehenswürdigkeiten, “things worthy of being seen,” here in Berlin. The zoo is among the best in the world, with everything from gorillas to pink flamingos, ocelots, tapirs, vicunjas on display, along with others whose names you won’t recall, and with viewing arrangements that allow you, and hopefully the animals and birds, to imagine we (and they) are in their natural habitat, which of course they (and we) aren’t; but the well-constructed faux mountain peaks, valleys, ponds, miniature lakes and rivers, surrounded by deep concrete moats that hold the Sehenswürdigkeiten in their place, are real in an imaginary way.

Berlin Zoo, Elephant Gate

Berlin Zoo, Elephant Gate

 

The children are real, too, of course, although one can imagine that their “real” is other than yours and mine. They try on occasion to climb into the construed landscapes or the cages and join their furred and feathered friends. The orangutans and Raubtiere, “robber animals,” like the tigers and leopards, can be viewed behind glass in their private quarters to which they retire when the Berlin weather’s too cold for their southern metabolisms. If the children have little play buggies containing replicate wild or human life, or are clutching stuffies that can double for both, the kids hold the latter up, or push the buggies close to the glassed-in real animals so these can behold their manufactured kin.

The children delight and are delightful. Across the footpath from the zoo restaurant (where you get real food, plus wine) the canny Berlin zoo designers have devised an environment—eine Umgebung, “something given to you that then surrounds you”—complete with swings, long looped ropes attached to the overhanging oak limbs, logs laid and stacked helter-skelter, climbing walls and plain old, monkey bars, and silver metal slides that gush like waterfalls out of the decks, doors and windows of a wood structure that resembles—yes, you guessed it!—a state of the art Noah’s Ark. The children don’t think of it as Noah’s Ark, of course (unless their parents, who sit on the strategic benches with good sightlines, or at the outside restaurant tables with their glass of wine and with kid paraphernalia stacked around them, remind them to do so). They think of it (I think) as part of the zoo’s métier. “Noah, Noah Noah,” they chant for a few minutes, then forget, as they climb and swing and leap, shriek and chatter back at the nearby crows. The monkeys, meanwhile, look and listen, then swing and climb and leap, and are then suddenly, for no apparent reason, still and oddly silent.

The Berlin Zoo aviaries—they’re a separate neighbourhood, a suburb, even, of the sprawling, zoo Welt—are dome-shaped mesh wire cages that reach high into the canopy provided by the giant oaks that hold up the real sky and are not part of any constructed landscape. The oaks are too old to think or talk about; they were already here in the time when this place (Umgebung) was the hunting grounds of the eighteenth century Prince Electors of Brandenburg Prussia, a time when city and wilderness were still in a kind of relationship.

And what one worries about, here and now, are the finches, sparrows, swifts, swallows that slip through the wire mesh cages and dart in and out of the display birds’ homes like miniature bio-charged (pronounced beeyo in German) drones; and what one puzzles over is whether these interlopers are part of the display, part of the city, or just part of untouched nature. When the finches zoomed through the Canadian arctic snow owl, then into the European great horned owl, and on to the eagle (European and North American) cages, I wondered if these predatory birds, Raubvögel, “robber birds,” in German, might catch and eat one of them. In my mind’s eye (but not in my real one) I saw the arctic owl swoop and claw-grasp an in-transit finch, settle on the in-cage fake tree (leafless, for better human full-surround viewing) and pick the birdie apart: a boy, about six, standing beside me, I knew, was thinking the same thing. Our ontologies wavered, intertwined.

*

At the entrance to the Affenhaus, the monkey building in the Berlin Zoo, a boy of one-and-a-half, maybe two, ran in, then out of the glass doorway, and then in again, and out again, and when he was outside, where his mother was waiting for him to settle down, he laughed and jumped up and down, and when he ran inside again, he shut the door and laughed and jumped up and down again behind the glass. Then he opened the door again and ran to where his mother was and jumped and laughed there.

A man (I) on his way to the Affenhaus, where the monkeys, chimps, lemurs and orangutans can be observed in glass-enclosed cages (monkey-sized doors at the back of these allow them to go to their outdoor “natural” habitats when these are warm enough) saw the boy perform his little peek-a-boo play and started to laugh also, and jump up and down. The boy stopped on the Affenhaus threshold and watched the man and then laughed louder and jumped up and down. His mother turned, and looked at the man, and then at her son, and then laughed.

The man asked if he might take a photograph, and the mother said, well yes, and nodded, and the man took out his digital little goof camera that was no bigger than his palm. The boy stopped jumping up and down and kept his eye on the man, then laughed, and when the camera electronically clicked and in real life flashed, he bolted back into the Affenhaus and swung the door closed behind him. His mother said, Come out, we have to go home, and the boy reappeared behind the door glass and laughed and jumped up and down in there, where one couldn’t hear him, and the man moved forward and squatted in front of the glass door and laughed and jumped up and down and made faces at the boy.

The mother, after watching and smiling for a while, called the boy again, and the man stood up and backed away from the door while still maintaining eye contact with the boy. The boy shook his head for a while, and left the glass door frame; his mother called again, and the boy reappeared behind the glass and the man rolled his eyes (I rolled my eyes) from a slight distance; the boy then swung open the door, and ran out of the Affenhaus to where his mother was. The man walked forward, stopped rolling his eyes and then entered the Affenhaus. He waved and said Chüss, “bye-bye,” to the boy, and the mother said sag mal aufwiedersehen, “say good-bye,” and the boy did so, and waved, and watched the man walk further into the Affenhaus.

When well down the hallway that fronted the glassed-in monkey, etc. cages and that carried a boomy echo, the man heard the boy calling. He turned and watched him running toward him and away from his mother, who stood in the Affenhaus doorway. The boy kept calling out and running, and the hallway built his tiny powerful voice into a large profile as his mother called also and shook her head in the distance. The man squatted so the boy could encounter him at eye level, and when the boy arrived he did his little jump and laugh routine, and pointed to what the man thought were the (glassed in) monkeys but turned out to be everything: the monkeys, his mother, the man, the boy himself, the distant doorway, the hallway ceiling, the echoes and reverbs everyone was listening to.

When his mother called out again that they had to leave, the man stood up and told the boy he needed to return to his mother. He nudged the boy in her direction, and when the boy resisted the man held his right hand out to the boy and started walking. The boy grasped the man’s little finger immediately and walked with the man (me) toward his mother. When the two reached her, the man pulled his little finger from the boy’s grasp and nudged the boy toward her, and the mother said, Well, we’ve got to teach you not to walk off with any strange man you meet because not all men are as nice as this one is. She used the word Herr to describe the man, and for “nice” she said nett.

The man smiled at the boy and his mother, said chüss, wiedersehen, turned and walked on toward the end of the Affenhaus hallway. He turned again and waved, said bye-bye, wiedersehen. The boy called out and jumped up and down again, and the man turned and walked away: he made a point of not looking back at the boy, whose gaze he felt at the centre of his back, at heart level. He stopped in front of the lemur cage where the lemurs looked at him with their huge riddle eyes and did not move. In the orangutan cage, a few steps on, he saw a young orangutan hanging sideways from a rope: it held the rope with one hand and one foot and stretched the opposing arm and leg out below so that its body formed a star.

Berlin zoo

Berlin zoo

 

*

The giraffes’necks bend and sway in the wind like great red-yellow-brown-petaled tulips. There are four separate subspecies here, each with a different mottled colour scheme on their necks and bodies. When wind caresses them, the giraffe tulip stems ease in the direction of the lime trees in whose canopy the tulip blossoms arrive like guests. The giraffes’necks have the same number of vertebrae as we humans do, but each vertebra is much larger, longer than ours. When the giraffe bends down to drink, which is what the giraffe I’m thinking about is doing right now, it spreads its front legs so that its neck, with its limited dinosaur-sized movement range, can reach this bottom end of a universe whose other end is in the tree tops. The thoughtful zookeepers have left a large bowl of water on the ground to facilitate this encounter.

Now there are two giraffes, and they entwine their necks like the lime tree branches they mingle also with. One knows they are making love, or thinking about love. They take their time. Their legs, when they move away from each other after this time, are so long you can count each step as they walk. Every step lasts a minute. You have lots of thoughts about yourself and the giraffe in each of these time spans. You breathe in a certain way. The legs are regal ancient stilts, royal structures. In this, the Berlin zoo, the giraffes are housed in giant South Asian-style brown-yellow-and beige domed temples. Their entrances are as high and wide as airplane hangars. These are religious barns in which the giraffes sleep standing up. You never hear them. Giraffes make no sound. When they stride through the arched entrance to their home, their dainty thumb-like horns graze the top of the archway like radar antennae.

Berlin zoo

Berlin zoo

 

*

Berlin zoo, Ivo.

Berlin zoo, Ivo.

 

The gorilla, Ivo is his name, assumes the pose: knuckles down in the grass, shoulders hunched forward, back arched low, back legs straight, head back, brows low, furrowed, frowning so he can get a good eye aim at his observers. He’s not looking at you: he’s just looking. So you think. What about those eyes? A woman at the rail that keeps the viewers away from the viewed, and from the deep concrete moat that separates Ivo from the rest of his world, and this world from him, calls out: Ivo, Ivo, hier bin ich, “I’m here,” she calls.

She’s in six inch silver stilettos, thin black tights, a top that informs you about her chest, long blond hair, so long you think you can breathe it in, from here, a face made up of materials. She’s with a man (she’s got her hand on his shoulder, her hip against him) who is a bit taller than her and, to judge from his grey remaining hair and wrinkled face, much older. Some of the face lines look violent, like scars. Ivo,Ivo, ich bin dar für Dich, his doll-like girlfriend calls again. “I’m here for you.” Ivo holds the pose.

Now she and Scarface are leaving: Chüss Ivo, wiedersehen. Bye-bye, Ivo. She waves. She turns, now, and when she has finished turning and walks away Ivo produces a massive groan that is partly screech, partly thunder that cracks loud from his massive chest. His gaze is where it was, straight, aimed, dark in your face. Doll girl rushes back to the railing (I notice now that she’s a tad older than she seemed on first sight) and calls: Ivo, ich bin wieder dar, “I’m back.” Ivo says nothing. Does nothing. Looks. Is silent. The other zoo onlookers at the railing giggle and cheer, a few applaud. They look at Dollgirl, at Ivo, at themselves.

Later, when the audience has dispersed and Dollgirl is far away with Scarface, and Ivo has groaned once more after her departure, he rises, walks, forearms, knuckles, up ahead, to another section of the small meadow that forms part of his habitat; he sits down in a patch of fresh grass and flowers and with one of his hands—no, with its fingers: the thumb’s too short and too far back in the palm to be opposable —picks grass and flowers, holds them between these four fingers (like people sometimes hold cigarettes), and brings them to his mouth. The flower petals and grass blades hang from his lips as he chews. His fingers are gentle, awkward as a child’s, as they grasp the thin vegetation. He’s looking down, not at me, not at anything.

*

She was a woman, not a child, but she yearned! As did he! Oh Ivo!

 

Norbert Ruebsaat

Norbert Ruebsaat

Norbert Ruebsaat teaches Media and Communication Studies at Columbia Collage and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver B.C. He publishes regularly in periodicals and newspapers, has produced documentaries for CBC Radio’s Ideas program, and has twice been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards in fiction and creative non-fiction.

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