At the Zoo

 The Reid Park Zoo in downtown Tucson celebrated the birth of a baby tapir a couple of weeks ago. 

The tapir is an endangered and bizarre creature from South America. It looks like a pig with an elephant’s trunk, but it is related more to rhinos and horses than pigs. It uses its mini trunk to pull up plants for food. 

A while back, zookeepers brought in a male tapir from another zoo to impregnate Mama tapir. Although the breeding was successful, the pair’s relationship was rocky. The male proved abusive, and was removed once the desired results were attained. 

I know all of this only because my next door neighbor here in Tucson helps the zoo provide proper nutrition for the animals. 

When Mama tapir rejected baby tapir, Howard was called in to fix up a nutritional regimen which zookeepers would hand feed to the infant tapir. 

“It is likely that the mother was traumatized by the male,” Howard said. “Animal families are like human families: they are sometimes dysfunctional.”

When baby tapir waddled after Mama tapir for milk, Mama apparently thought the baby resembled the father and fled for safety. 

After studying the chemical content of tapir milk, Howard decided a diet of goat’s milk would be best for the baby. He found a goat herder in northern Arizona willing to donate milk. The man even threw in some colostrum for good measure, yum, yum. 

Alas, baby tapir coughed at the wrong time, inhaled some of the goat’s milk into its lungs, developed pneumonia and died. 

With my curiosity piqued by Howard’s story, I decided to visit the zoo last Saturday. 

My last visit to a zoo had been several years ago. The Tucson Desert Museum twelve miles west of the downtown is an excellent zoo which features animals of the Sonoran Desert. Zookepers do the best they can to provide realistic habitats for the incarcerated critters. 

However, as I watched the playful otters repeat their same routine of sliding down the waterslide, twisting in the water, jumping out and diving again, I became depressed that they weren’t free to do the same in the wild. 

Watching the intelligent otters do the same trick forty-three times in a row reminded me of a brilliant homo sapiens wasting days playing solitaire on the computer. 

Thanks to the plight of the otters, I soured on zoos. But I wanted to see Mama tapir, so I drove downtown and joined the hordes of schoolchildren. 

The tapir was something to see, but I had the most fun watching the five elephants. Elephants are grand, playful and intelligent. According to Howard, “They have a great sense of humor.” 

I witnessed it. As a baby elephant extended its trunk into the moat to get a drink, an adult stood across and watched. As baby’s trunk fully extended, the adult reached across with its own trunk, wrapped it around the base of baby’s trunk, and squeezed tight. 

With its trunk squeezed shut, baby elephant couldn’t get water. But it was a joke. The adult pulled away, as did the baby, and I swear I could see both of them smile at the prank. 

The elephants played. They pulled dust into their trunk and sprayed it at each other. They wallowed in the mud. I didn’t witness them use their trunk to fling dung at the crowd, but it has been known to happen. 

Interesting human behaviors were on display at the zoo as well. As the animals performed their natural functions, little kids commented without restraint. And the adults squirmed. 

“Mom, the mama elephant is peeing!” shouted a little girl. 

“How do you know it is the mama?” the human mother responded in an attempt to change the subject, unwittingly opening the door for even more embarrassing comments. 

A young male giraffe, only 2300 lbs. (adult males reach 7,000 lbs) attempted to ensure the survival of his species. He was rebuffed. 

“What is he doing, Daddy?” said a little girl. 

“Let’s go see the otters,” said Dad. 

“Why don’t you want to watch the giraffes, Dad?” 

The delights of parenting. 

After a beautiful afternoon spent in awe of the odd and the beautiful, I decided the zoo is a pretty good place. 

A big reason was the kids. If only a handful of them maintain their excitement about animals into adulthood long enough fight for their preservation, zoos are worth it. 

As for the adults, perhaps the obvious intelligence of the elephants, or the miraculous oddity of the tapir, will inspire them to question the depraved dogma that humans are the sole purpose of creation.