Maybe this time will be different.
The blue crowned pigeon approaches his mate and begins davening, twerking his tail toward the skylight of the Cape May County Zoo aviary as his beak dips toward earth. His intensity and focus during the mating ritual, coupled with the wild tuile topping his head, give him the look of an 18th-century composer banging away at what just might be a masterpiece. The recipient of this overture is completely still, her eyes projecting a glazed endurance.
When the dance is over — or perhaps in a move that ends the dance — the female pigeon turns and begins picking at the ground.
“We’d like them to breed, but they just can’t get it right,” sighs Janeen Moore, a zookeeper charged with caring for these birds, as well as every other winged creature at this zoo. Like the other 20 full-time keepers, she is wearing one of her many monogrammed Cape May County Zoo shirts, unisex work pants and a face mask. Moore explains that the female pigeon had been at the zoo for nearly three years before her “genetically suitable” mate arrived for this arranged marriage. Though the male has been trying to impress her since 2016, the female pigeon is simply, Moore says, “not feeling it.” The male’s efforts to woo also include repeated attempts to build a nest, but when he summons his mate to inspect his efforts, Moore says, “She comes up and goes, ‘That’s not good enough,’ and throws it all out,” knocking the insufficiently arranged sticks out of the tree and onto the ground. Every egg the dysfunctional coupling has managed to produce was either unfertilized or cracked.
After so many years, it would seem childishly optimistic to think the pigeon couple might get it right during this particular mating season. But without the peeping eyes of the usual spectators, now could be the perfect time.
Like so much of the rest of the country, the Cape May County Zoo closed in March to ensure the safety of the human public. But the closure keeps its animal inhabitants safe, too: In April, New York City’s Bronx Zoo found that eight of its big cats had contracted the coronavirus from an asymptomatic keeper, and it’s assumed primates can also be infected because of their biological similarity to humans. The sudden absence of civilians puts into focus who is really served by zoos. The institutions ostensibly exist for the preservation of animals. But if we’re honest with ourselves, conservation is often for and funded by human enjoyment of animal life; zoos, after all, are categorized by New Jersey law as “amusements.” During the pandemic, to protect animal life, zoos continue to run for the benefit of the amusers even as we forgo our own good time.
Which means no annoying people crowding around enclosures. No kids yelling or cameras flashing or cellphones accidentally dropping into their homes. There have been news stories about penguins that got to take a hike in the woods near their exhibit in Oregon and cheetahs in Providence, R.I., that were visited by a keeper in a tantalizing rabbit costume. In Hong Kong, a pair of pandas that had been haplessly failing to mate for a decade managed to consummate their union after their zoo shut to the public in January. Nature is healing, as the coronavirus-era meme says. Humans are the disease.
If that’s true, then a human-free environment is a respite for the animals of the Cape May Zoo — a blessed break from watching us watch them. Away from the strains and scrutiny of public life, without people making everything worse, maybe the blue crowned pigeons will get the chance to follow the lead of the pandas: It’s time to relax, make a baby and finally finish that home improvement project.
When I visited the 52-acre Cape May County Zoo in mid-May, it had been locked to the public since March 16 at the order of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. The length of this shutdown bests the previous record-holding break by several months. Since then, keepers who normally rotate between groups of the more than 600 animals there have been staying in one section to avoid cross-contamination and are working in isolation from other employees. While the zoo is a public facility that gets a budget from the county government to pay zookeeper salaries, parks director Ed Runyon says the organization runs “almost entirely” on donations from visitors, who pay no entrance fees. In spring, the zoo typically takes in about a quarter of its annual donations, which cover costs like the staggering $50,000 a month food bill. A month from now, on June 13, zoo director and head veterinarian Hubert “Doc” Paluch will enact his plan to reopen with limited visitors, one-way foot traffic and, of course, masks. If the zoo didn’t resume visitation this summer, it would lose the remaining 75 percent of its annual donations.
For now, the sudden disappearance of the humans who pay for meals is the biggest change for the animals. Which is just fine by the reptiles, says general curator and supervising animal keeper Kevin Wilson: “They certainly don’t seem to be fazed by the quiet time. I think they like it.” Wilson says during “the very bad months” of summer, “you’ve got a thousand people in this building,” gesturing around the now-quiet indoor reptile house, covered in swamp-approximating murals and lit with the sallow flicker of heat lamps. “They’re all banging on the glass, because the kids want the animals to react,” Wilson says. “And the more people bang on the glass, the more the animals just hide in the back. And some of them do stress out. They don’t eat.”
Unlike mammals, who are temporarily raised by their parents, reptiles are heuristic. “Out of the egg and on their own,” says Wilson. It’s not built into them to socialize with each other, much less people. “Alligators, crocodiles, snakes, everything like that,” Wilson lists, looking down at Ike, an eight-foot American alligator whose eyes and nostrils are the only body parts that break the meniscus of his pond. Paddling runty claws tipped with white, Cardi B-long talons, Ike silently drifts toward the voice of the man who feeds him but whom he feels nothing toward. “It’s not so much they want to be with you,” Wilson says. “You’re fulfilling a need.”
This exchange — you give me what I require to survive, I let your buddies look at me — is what I assumed to be the basis of most human-zoo animal relationships. That if animals were the aristocracy of the zoo, keepers were the staff that knew its place and the public was merely tolerated as the subjects funding the venture.
But for some animals, the attachment is more than transactional. Bird keeper Moore introduces me to Gil, a gray cockatoo who became so distressed at his newfound solitude that he began self-harming, plucking his chest feathers until he gnawed a hole in his skin that had to be covered with a vest the bird immediately ripped apart. (He was subsequently outfitted with a fetching pink polka-dot ruff that matched the peachy feathers at the back of his head.) “They love getting talked to all day,” Moore says, turning her head upside down at a blue parrot named Brat. He is used to Moore’s face, and, like everyone else, hates the masks protecting us; he repeatedly tries to remove Moore’s. “He just doesn’t think it belongs there,” she says. “You think you’re coming to the zoo to watch the animals. Well, the animals are watching you, too.” When I laugh at Moore’s words, Brat’s mate, Azur, mimics my peal back at me.
Like the parrots, the zoo’s primates socialize with humans. So do otters and camels and, unlike their reptile brethren, tortoises, which come over to keepers and excitedly play at their feet even when they know no food is forthcoming. They thrill at human contact.
Keepers are filling in the new social gap: “[The animals] look forward to their company,” says Doc. But, he tells me, “They do miss the crowds and the variety of people coming through.” Watch the news or go on Twitter or attend a peaceful protest met with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets, and you know the meme is true: Humans are almost always the disease. It feels like a miracle to find a place where our presence is a cure.
After two months of the rapture-like scene at the zoo, even animals generally apathetic to people seem to feel the loss. “I might have been a little surprised by certain species that may have missed the public more than I thought they would,” says Doc. (He clarifies that even after 31 years at the Cape May Zoo, he is not an animal psychic: “I just look at what I can observe. I certainly can’t interpret what they’re thinking.”) “I was walking by the bison,” parks director Runyon says. “Usually they don’t care about anything. But they were all coming right over and just staring at us as we were walking by.” When I cross the bridge by the massive bison enclosure, several steers, mid-spring molt, walk underneath and gaze up at me.
Later, the female half of a pair of lions comes up to the fence and pushes her haunch against the chain link for a scratch no one is allowed to give her. Based on what we saw from the cats at the Bronx Zoo, if the lioness’s keeper had the coronavirus and the lioness got near enough to her keeper to catch it, the most severe symptom she’d experience is a cough. Who is being served by these rules? “It’s the people that [the virus] is affecting,” says Doc. “It’s not affecting animals to any extent.”
When Michael Jackson lived at Neverland Ranch, he owned a flamboyance of Chilean flamingos. (Yes, “flamboyance” is the actual collective noun.) Though Doc insists the birds’ home at Neverland was much like the one at this zoo, they shared the property with a Ferris wheel and a full-size amusement park chair swing ride. After Jackson moved out of Neverland following his 2005 child molestation trial and acquittal, the flamingos went from being living lawn ornaments to residents of the Cape May County Zoo.
When animals’ well-being is prioritized over their availability to be admired, an object becomes the subject; a prop transforms into the protagonist. Though this shift in values has never been starker than during this pandemic — the lives of the animals at the Cape May County Zoo are given vastly more consideration than, say, workers at a meat plant — it’s part of a broader movement in the industry. Zoos like Cape May are increasingly oriented toward welfare, which Doc says has become a “buzzword” in the past decade. Enclosures have become larger and more naturalistic, and animals have more places to secret themselves away from our gaze. They are no longer trained to perform for our enjoyment, but to sit for necessary medical treatment they used to be sedated or restrained to endure. Even if an animal is owned by Cape May County, accrediting organization the Association of Zoos & Aquariums might recommend it be sent to another facility for breeding to promote genetic diversity among an endangered species. “It’s a good thing everybody’s going more towards conservation and protect[ion], rather than showing them off,” event and program coordinator Jean Whalen says. “But it’s getting out of the entertainment business. That’s making it harder.”
A zoo’s mission is to use the human draw toward charismatic megafauna to protect those creatures. Without that trade, zoos don’t exist. Which means they have to figure out how close we can safely get, whether it’s to prevent tigers from getting the coronavirus or to allow them to live as organic and fulfilling a life as one can behind a fence. (Doc admits: “There’s nothing like seeing animals in the wild. You can see them in the zoo, which brings in the educational part of it and the conservation part of it. But just to be able to see them in the wild is extremely exciting. You know that they’re still out there.”)
Distance protects humans, too — definitely from getting mauled, but also from the pain of attachment to what never really belonged to us. When I ask why the name of Mr. Bojangles the bobcat is not printed on the information card about his species in front of his enclosure, Whalen says, “The [keepers] don’t really like the public to know their names, because it just gets messy if something happens to that animal, and the [public] keeps expecting it to be that [same] animal. We have to explain how it went back to Kansas because it didn’t belong to us. And we had two [snow leopard] babies that passed. They were healthy, and then a parasite from being outside went to their brain. It was so sad. So it’s tricky: How much do you share with the public? Because they hurt, too.”
One of the last enclosures before the zoo’s exit is the primate habitat. A bonded pair of siamang gibbons come outside to inspect the unfamiliar person standing next to their keeper Megan Draper. It’s been a long time since they’ve seen a stranger, and the muscular duo swing across branches, patrolling their territory. After a few minutes, Merlin, the male, stills and begins the ritual he shares with his mate, Leela, every morning around 10:30. The flaccid pouch at his neck tumesces with song, sharp little honks that sound like didgeridoo notes. At first the performance is a solo. Then Leela starts to harmonize, and the second voice throbs against the first. The music is loud enough to make my chest vibrate, letting everyone in earshot know that Merlin and Leela are together and we are in their space.
The gibbons hang on the net, their bodies overlapping. Against the brightness of the sky, it’s impossible to tell where her dark body stops and his starts. They are one in silhouette, extra limbs fanning out like Shiva as they bellow their duet to their audience. And what’s the point of a song if there’s no one to hear it?
Anna Peele is a writer in New York.
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