The Gorilla in the Zoo

By now, probably everyone has heard about the gorilla Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo , recently euthanized after a small boy (the many news articles I read variously cited his age as either 3 or 4 years old) deliberately entered his enclosure. The child told his mother that he was going to go into the gorilla’s habitat; the mother said no; the next thing anyone knew, the child was next to the gorilla. Harambe soon began dragging the boy around, causing a concussion in what some say was protective behavior and others say was aggressive, but was certainly dangerous for the child whatever the gorilla’s motivation.

Amid the crowd’s screams, zoo staff tried calling the gorillas out of the outside part of their enclosure and away from the child. Two female gorillas obeyed the call, but Harambe did not. Zoo staff then made the decision to euthanize the gorilla, later explaining that a tranquilizer would have taken too long to take effect and would have agitated the gorilla in the meantime, thus putting the preschool-aged boy in more danger.

Online, everyone had an opinion or even an often dubious degree of expertise. (Yes, I know, here I am writing a blog post.) Some people not only judged the parents but wanted them held criminally responsible, which unleashed a round of other people speaking out against judging parents for what they believe could have happened to anyone in a split second of looking away. Some of the comments I have read about the parents were blatantly racist, and the racial aspect of reactions to the story has been discussed in still other articles such as this one. For their part, the parents are urging their supporters to make donations to the Cincinnati Zoo in Harambe’s memory rather than donating to the family.

The zoo was widely blamed as well, with people questioning the quality of the barriers surrounding the enclosure, which reportedly meet Association of Zoo and Aquarium standards. Meanwhile, the debates about the value of one human life versus one of some 175,765 gorilla lives left in the world emerged in many comments sections.

Jane Goodall, along with the man who came up with the name for Harambe, the man who raised Harambe as a young gorilla, and a former zookeeper all offered their angles on the story. The incident was used as the premise of articles questioning why zoos exist at all.       Writers with some degree of primate knowledge have taken different stances on whether Harambe was trying to hurt the boy or protect him.

Harambe’s death was lamented in part because of the loss of an individual and of his genes to his endangered species, but as it turns out, his sperm has been preserved and can still be used to help propagate new gorillas.  In another article, we learned of the deaths of Harambe’s gorilla family members in another zoo tragedy (a 2002 chlorine gas leak at Texas’s Gladys Porter Zoo).

Having read dozens of articles on the subject, and too many comments for anyone’s good, I can only conclude that what happened was no one’s fault – a rarely occurring but tragic event in which a decision had to be made instantaneously to preserve human life. I am not wondering what the zoo staff or the mother could have done differently in that terrifying moment. But I am wondering if anything could be done differently, at a societal or field-wide level, to decrease the already low chances of such an outcome.

Newborn babies are swaddled in blankets and dressed in onesies covered with adorable, pastel-colored, smiling, anthropomorphized animals. Certainly I have bought these kinds of gift items myself, along with cute-animal-themed giftwrap, for friends who are having babies. Young children learn about letters and numbers, kindness and taking turns, from books and cartoons about wild animals that look like stuffed toys. At the same time, children also learn that real animals are often large and very often dangerous to human beings, and there are reasons that you can’t pet the lions or even (with some exceptions in the form of exhibits specifically designated as petting zoos) the herbivorous megafauna when you visit the zoo.

If children being wheeled through the zoo entrance in teddy bear strollers are made aware of the dangers that the animals pose to people, how aware are people, in turn, of the danger that people pose to animals? I recently finished reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, which describes the havoc humans are wreaking on ecosystems through phenomena such as habitat destruction, introduction of invasive species, ocean acidification, and climate change. Do zoo visitors understand that zoos exist not just for a fun afternoon of cotton candy and looking at the animals, but also to try to build arks and breed and preserve species that are at risk of extinction due to human activities? Certainly, a job that zoos have is to bring people in the door and educate them about this reality.

When I led birthday parties at the National Zoo, some for children as young as the boy who fell into the gorilla enclosure in Cincinnati, my fellow Birthday Safari Guides (yes, that was my job title) and I were required to set some ground rules before heading out on our tours. We told the children that the animals have their own diets and it would not be healthy for them to eat human food, so the juice boxes and crackers would stay in the party room. The habitats are the animals’ homes, and we would therefore not tap on their glass, just as it would be rude for someone to come and bang on our own windows at home. When we visited the great apes, we told the children to show their friendliness and non-aggression by turning their backs, closing their mouths (that is, no bared teeth), and looking over their shoulders at the animals. The hope is that we were not only preventing an immediate catastrophe when we set these rules, but also that we were instilling a sort of respect for the animals and their needs.

Worldwide, the Cincinnati Zoo incident was one of a few, in a short period of time, in which humans entered zoo animal enclosures with tragic results. The motivations/explanations for some recent forays into zoo animal habitats include suicidality, drunkenness, and the desire to take selfies with a walrus.

Still, what happened to Harambe is not part of some little-boys-falling-into-gorilla-enclosures epidemic. Arguably, it is part of a humans-encroaching-on-animal-populations epidemic. What if there were better fences, better education, and better tranquilizer darts? (If there is demand for weapons that can instantaneously kill, why doesn’t the human race have the motivation to develop something that can instantaneously tranquilize? I am no expert so perhaps this idea is a scientific impossibility, but if not, I can only imagine how transformative such an invention would be.) Would there then be better outcomes for animals like Harambe?

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The Goats in the Arboretum

Educators at informal learning environments with living collections hope that their living specimens will provide opportunities for engagement with human visitors. Some recent news stories of human-animal engagement gone awry have been running through my head for weeks, making me wonder to what extent such occurrences can be prevented and mitigated by the museum/park/other learning environment and to what extent they are an inevitable risk of human forays into the non-human world.

In what appears to be nothing more than a clear-cut case of animal cruelty this past spring, Mervyn Jay Downes III trespassed onto the grounds of Maryland’s Adkins Arboretum after hours and slit the throats of three goats (on two separate occasions), killing two and maiming the other. He has been charged with several crimes associated with these actions.

Adkins Arboretum, located within Tuckahoe State Park, has a plant-focused name (arboretum being derived from the word arbor) and mission (including phrases like “focuses solely on plants native to the Mid-Atlantic coastal plain”), but arboreta are also places to see animals that live among the plants.

On the arboretum’s Facebook page, some of the fauna included in photos are butterflies, leopard frogs, ducks, herons, and turtles. One photo of a birder is captioned, “Annual Spring Bird Migration Walk with Wayne Bell. Orchard Oriole, Indigo Bunting, Field Sparrow, Scarlet Tanager, Blue Grosbeak and flock of Myrtle, Yellow-Rumped or Butterbutt Warblers! A great day to start my own list!”

The goats are on-site for the purpose of natural week control, as described on a page of the arboretum’s website. Five years ago, Adkins won an award for piloting this program.

This award was given by Shared Earth Foundation, whose mission statement includes the belief that “today’s human beings have the responsibility to share Earth’s resources with other creatures and future generations by limiting their adverse impact on the planet, and by enriching and protecting Earth’s wild life and the places they inhabit.” This blog post is the first in a series I am writing on recent interactions that ended badly between human beings and other creatures at places where human beings can go to see and learn about such other creatures.

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Blogging After Orlando

In an effort to get inspired to get back into blogging regularly, this past week I went back and read my entire blog so far. By reading five years of my own writing, I watched as I went from gushy to jaded. I can also look back and see the passage of time over the course of my visits to a different museum each week for several months at a time. For example, I associate some weeks’ museum trips with a particular kind of weather or remember the site being decorated for a certain holiday.

I also remember some visits in terms of the events concurrently taking place in the world. In a region where many museums are government-run, or for other reasons have an American flag outside, I began to notice when the flags were at half-staff.

In one of my first blog posts, I posted a picture of a flag at Arlington National Cemetery, outside Arlington House, at half-staff because of the shooting in Tucson, Arizona that had wounded Representative Gabrielle Giffords and killed six people. When I blogged about visiting Bladensburg Waterfront Park in April 2013, I noted that the flag was at half-staff after the Boston Marathon attack.  My very last Weekly Museum Visit, at the Library of Congress (Madison Building) took place when the flags were at half-staff not because of a specific recent tragedy but in commemoration of Police Week.

American Flag and Pride Flag at half-staff outside the Corcoran Gallery of Art on Thursday, June 16, 2016

American Flag and Pride Flag at half-staff outside the Corcoran Gallery of Art on Thursday, June 16, 2016

This year, the flag was at half-staff on Flag Day as the nation mourned yet another mass shooting. In an attack that targeted LGBTQ and Hispanic communities during Pride Weekend, 49 people were killed in Orlando, Florida at Pulse Nightclub.

As everyone grappled with the horror that had happened, just a few of the responses from museums included:

  • The Indianapolis Museum of Art, along with Indy Pride, invited visitors to “Send Love to Orlando” by taking photos with Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture and posting them on social media.
  • The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Museum of Durham History were just two museums that issued statements on the shooting.
  • The Florida Holocaust Museum held a vigil in memory of the victims and donated all proceeds from one day of admissions to the Pulse Victims Fund. The museum’s website discusses the fact that one of the victims, Christopher Leinonen, had previously won an award from the museum for humanitarianism, in his case for starting a Gay Straight Alliance at his high school.

One idea that kept resurfacing in the reporting on the Orlando shooting was that a gay nightclub is a safe space or sanctuary. This thought was also included in my clergy leader’s words at a vigil I attended after the massacre.

American Red Cross flag at half-staff outside American Red Cross historic headquarters on Wednesday, June 15, 2016

American Red Cross flag at half-staff outside American Red Cross historic headquarters on Wednesday, June 15, 2016

I had thought of bars and clubs and lounges as places to unwind after a long week, maybe drink more or spend more or stay out later than planned, maybe end up with a sheepish-groan-worthy story later. I have not thought of any club as a place of particular peace or safety. Sure, part of that might be my introverted personality that finds more peace in quiet solitude than in a loud and crowded room where everyone can dance better than I can.

But also, nightlife venues have not offered me much that I can’t find anywhere else, because for my entire adult life, I (a woman) have been able to hold hands with a man without fear of attack, and without wondering which family members, employers, or professors might disapprove (or worse).

Omar Mateen, who took 49 lives on June 12 and was killed in the police confrontation that followed, was reported to have frequented the club himself. There is speculation and some evidence from people who knew him that he himself may have been gay.  The evidence suggests he was inspired by ISIS but did not have any actual connection to them, and it is impossible now for him to explain why he did what he did. In a decision that we will never be able to understand, he attacked a place full of people who would not have taken issue with his sexual orientation, whatever it was. He attacked people in their sanctuary.

American flag at half-staff outside the DAR Museum on Wednesday, June 15, 2016

American flag at half-staff outside the DAR Museum on Wednesday, June 15, 2016

In the museum world, it is often in discussions of visitor motivations that the idea of the museum as a sanctuary comes up: a silent room filled with art, a secluded gazebo in the gardens outside a history museum. A literal nature sanctuary, or the literal sanctuary of a historic house of worship. Visitors seeking these types of places would be called rechargers by researcher John Falk.

What had once been the site of a police raid and subsequent days of rioting that are thought to be the moment defining the beginning of the LGBTQ rights movement in the United States – Stonewall Inn in New York City – is now itself designated as a national monument. Specifically, adjacent Christopher Park, which contains the sculpture Gay Liberation by George Segal, is now also known as the Stonewall National Monument. While I have not been to this park, other visitors have been making pilgrimages there long before it got official presidential recognition, and perhaps it is a place that lends itself to recharging like the other museum and park examples listed above.

My clergy leader reading names at a vigil, and the young man who won a humanitarian award and later died in a mass shooting, and so many museum workers, and I in my non-profit professional and volunteer work, and countless others of us have all been working to make our museums, our spiritual meetinghouses, our nightclubs, and our world as a whole a safer place for all. Exactly one year after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality for all Americans in every jurisdiction, and exactly two weeks after horrendous gun violence at a gay club, I am reminded of the work that has been done and the work that is left to do.

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An Announcement

With an hour left of this month, I am just barely getting an April blog post in. These days, I aim to post at least once a month, but focusing on my non-museum career has taken precedence over my museum hobby. However, I am happy to share the next chapter in my career: I will soon be joining the American Red Cross as a paralegal. Below are some photos from the tour of the historic headquarters I took a few years ago.


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People of the Coloring Book

Last year, a dear friend of mine bought me a coloring book for adults. We worked on the first page of it together, but since then I had not set out to finish it, and have left most of the book uncolored.

Yesterday, the cover of the Washington Post’s free Express newspaper was an adult coloring page.

Last night, after a rough day, thinking of the Express cover, I got out my own coloring book. And colored and colored and colored. (Scroll down to see my masterpiece! It is from Enchanted by Angela Porter.)

When I say “adult coloring book,” this term has nothing to do with any X-rated content in the pictures. Rather, these coloring books are designed for the fine motor skills of adults, with much more intricate detail and abstract designs than coloring books designed for children.

Many of these intricately detailed pages take the form of the mandala: circular designs, each unique, with tiny repeating elements that can be colored any color you like. The mandala has a great deal of meaning to Indian religions including Buddhism.

A children’s coloring page would be more likely to feature a scene calling for specific colors (green grass, yellow sun, blue sky, etc.) – if it features, say, a favorite movie character, a devoted child may know exactly which crayon to use for the hair, eyes, dress, shoes. In fact, in my preschool teaching days, coloring pages were discouraged in favor of more open-ended art projects, ones that did not require literally staying within the lines. The mandalas designed for adults to color, by contrast, do not impose any canon of “correct” colors.

Articles on the popularity of adult coloring books emphasize the relaxing, stress-relieving, creative, and meditative aspects of this hobby. One blogger, however, is not so keen on the mandala coloring pages. The Last Hiker blog refers to coloring mandalas as “knocking on the door of a false temple.” With adult coloring books (often featuring mandalas) popular among Christians and non-Christians alike, this blog post warning of demons entering souls via coloring books is refuted and ridiculed in many of the comments. Indeed, the blogger writes that it was a devout Christian friend who gave the coloring book as a gift in the first place.

As an aside, mandalas, with their circular form, central point, repeating patterns, and meditative uses, remind me of labyrinths, a configuration used in Christian as well as other religions’ spiritual practice. Earlier today, for example, I walked a labyrinth outside a Protestant church.

When I started reading the blog post maligning mandala coloring pages, I wondered if the blogger would object even to looking at mandalas (such as at the Freer-Sackler), but as I read on, I learned that there was something specifically about coloring them – spending so much time concentrating on them, and helping to bring them into their full colorful being – that the blogger considers problematic.

mandala.JPGEveryone should color the coloring books that feel right (including spiritually) to them, and for me, the mandala and non-mandala pages of my coloring book have both been enjoyable and relaxing. This is a form of artistic expression that adults can begin without a sizable financial or time commitment, whereas other art forms that adults have as hobbies may only seem worthwhile if the adult has special talent, a place to keep the equipment, and motivation to keep up the endeavor. Young children are encouraged with crayons and finger paint and Play-Doh and all sorts of things, but do not necessarily keep or act on their love of creative art when they reach adulthood.

For adults who enjoy both looking at art in the museum and doing some coloring of their own, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has turned a few works of art in their collection, ones with detailed patterns, into coloring pages for adults. An Internet search will also yield numerous other pages you can print, or you can buy a book in a bookstore, wherever bookstores still exist.

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Take a Book, Leave a Book at Twinbrook

I do not think of Twinbrook as a visitor destination, but rather as a place with various resources (commercial and otherwise) for the local community. The first time I ever used this Metro, I was shopping for fabric at Michaels in one of the every-chain-store-you-could-need shopping centers. Nearby Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington was one of my Weekly Museum Visits, but I seemed to be the only person there in the capacity of a museum/gallery visitor. The center is there primarily for community members and also has gallery space where visitors are welcomed.

On one of the residential streets near the Metro station, there is a Little Free Library. I have written this before, and I will say again that I am enchanted by Little Free Libraries. This particular one in Rockville near the Twinbrook Metro was extra charming because it matches the house it sits in front of:


Stopping by the Little Free Library on New Year’s Day (and ringing in the New Year at a literary-themed restaurant, and going to a public library today…) was apropos given that one of my New Year’s Resolutions is to read more books. Not just articles and tweets and memes on my phone, but more actual books.

The content I can read on my phone is addictive, but I am beginning to question how much I am really learning from it. For every article that cites certain statistics to support a position, there seems to be another article that cites opposite statistics to support the opposite position. I do believe it is possible to sift through it all and get down to the actual facts as we can best know them, but to do so could easily become a full-time job and would require time and energy I don’t have.

Books are not immune to this phenomenon, but there are some mitigating aspects of books: the length of time that goes into researching and writing them, the lack of 24-hour-news-cycle pressure, the (however flawed) standards for getting a book published, the longer and more in-depth exploration provided to the reader.

As a museum person at heart, and as an ethical culturist, I wish and hope for an informed and humane citizenry. I do not want to be stuck in an echo chamber, only to leave completely ill-equipped to discuss anything with someone who has been stuck in their own, different echo chamber.

Little Free Libraries, while not by any means purporting to offer a complete canon or broad selection of literature in any one kiosk, nonetheless play their own little free role in promoting an informed and humane citizenry.  And anyone can play a part – just as I did by leaving a few books in the Little Free Library a few blocks from the Twinbrook Metro the other day.

Happy, literary New Year!

Twinbrook is on the Red Line.

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Photo of the Day: Baltimore Basilica

At work yesterday afternoon, we were spontaneously given today (New Year’s Eve) off as a holiday. Hooray! So I took an excursion to Baltimore. I did not succeed in visiting anything only open on weekdays, but I did visit the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known as America’s first cathedral (the process of building it began in 1806). The basilica offers guided and self-guided tours, with the self-guide showing points of interest on the main and crypt levels, and some exhibit space in and near the crypt as well.

Happy New Year!

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