Who Speaks for the Animals?

I’m proud of our zoo. It’s a growing, valuable asset to our community. With the self-immolation of the Jackson zoo over the last few years, the odds are good that it will soon be the only nationally accredited zoo in Mississippi.

That said, something about it gives me the creeps.

I have a long history with our zoo. I can remember when it was essentially a one-lane affair, backed up against a ditch, with pathetic, fly-covered animals peering forlornly from cages on either side.

I also remember being home on leave in 1971 when local musical legend, Jimmy Swan, who was running for state Governor, had a free barbeque at the zoo pavilion. As far as I was concerned, he could out-hank Hank Williams.

After all, if Jimmy Davis, who wrote and sang “You Are My Sunshine,” could parlay that syrupy anthem into a two-time governorship of Louisiana, why not our Jimmy riding his signature song, “The Way That You’re Living is Breaking My Heart,” into the governor’s mansion in Jackson?

It certainly had more pathos that I could relate to. Alas, he placed third in the Democratic primary, losing to Clarksdale’s Charles Sullivan who was later killed in an airplane crash.

But the barbeque was good. Also, not far from the concession stand, there is a brick paving inscribed with the names of my two children, evidence of our participation in an early fund-raising effort to improve the tiger cage.

Speaking of tigers, who can argue with a zoo that names its current featured tiger attraction, before the giraffes arrive, “Kipling.” As someone who has read and collected every book that Rudyard Kipling, the Poet Laureate of the British Empire, ever wrote, including such classics as “The Jungle Book,” “The Man Who Would be King,” and “Captains Courageous,” I think the name is most appropriate.

In fact, one of the stories in “The Jungle Book” is entitled “Tiger, Tiger,” which Kipling once admitted was inspired by William Blake’s famous poem. “The Tyger” (“Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright, in the forests of the night; what immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry.”)  Kipling’s story, because of its brevity, is what is known in the trade as a “short-short story.”

However, that takes nothing away from its impact. In fact, less is often more as in perhaps the best short-short story ever written, by Ernest Hemingway, and only consisting of six words: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never used.”

So, what am I complaining about? To be honest, I have reservations about cooping up wild animals in cages and behind fences. All zoos are built on an idea both beguiling and repellant: the notion that we can seek out the wildness and behold its beauty but that we must first contain that wildness.

I suppose it’s my background, too. I like a good steak now and then, and I’m not some radical tree hugger, but I’ve seen so much bloodshed, carnage, death, and destruction in my life that I don’t like to see any animal hurt or penned up.

I’m not killing anything, even a fly. I called out the neighbor boy for shooting the squirrels in my trees. I fuss at my granddaughters for killing the lizards in my yard.

I might as well be a Hindu practicing “ahimsa”, because I will not even step on a bug. Not long ago, I caught a water moccasin in my garage. I took him down to the lake, threw him in, watched him swim away, and said, “Vaya con Dios.”

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