The Eyes of A Tigress
Today I remembered being nine and standing in front of a tiger’s cage in a zoo called the Barrett Park on Staten Island in New York, and staring into the unblinking yellow eyes of a huge, beautiful female tiger--tigress, if that word is used for tigers and not just wild women. There she lay on that cold wet cement floor of her cage, staring through bars, not lying on the soft turf where she belonged, not staring through tall grasses.
I was a “regular” there, well known, connected so to speak, and was afforded privileges others had not. I could be trusted. I talked with the zookeepers a lot. I even knew some of the men there who went about the world collecting snakes for that zoo, and back then the Barrett Park boasted the largest snake collection in the USA. Beautiful reptiles they were too, although they never did much except to constrict the occasional hapless rat or sweet little rabbit, and then only after closing hours so as not to offend the sensibilities of the visitors. At that time it wasn’t considered seemly for humans to actually see the dining or propagation habits of the animal kingdom we view so routinely on TV today.
And then there was Jocko, the huge ape everyone loved, who entertained the people by executing unspeakable acts. He never disappointed and performed daily right on cue. All he needed was just one person to be outside his cage looking in and you can probably imagine how he screamed and performed, and what he threw. But hey, if you were caged up all day behind metal bars on a wooden platform above a wet cement floor, taken away from your family, bored, angry, sad and lonely, you might throw some too.
I was alone that day when I was nine. The tigress stared at me, I stared back, I blinked. She did not. And then I said “I’m sorry. I wish you didn’t have to live here. I wish I could take you back to your home and your family.” And she stared at me more, and again I blinked and she did not and I knew she understood.
Zoos were only just starting to improve back then, and while all-natural zoos were mostly just the dream of zoologists, magnificent, priceless animals were subjected to the purgatory of those cold cement floors, hard iron bars, a swinging, ragged tire perhaps, maybe a thick propped tree limb and a couple of wooden palettes high off the floors (sometimes) so the animal could escape the daily hosing down of the cement. They deserved better. They deserved to be home. Theirs.
I remember wishing we’d never had zoos. I now know their importance, how they’ve taught us to appreciate the great value of wild animals from the entire world, how zoologists are contributing invaluably to the health and preservation of those rapidly diminishing creatures, working hard to rebuild their decimated numbers. Who knows? Perhaps with cloning these thinning herds of great creatures can be made healthy, their numbers vastly increased. But I still shudder to think how many creatures had to die horribly and in huge numbers to get just one or two specimens into those old zoos.
The accusing yellow eyes of that tigress from nearly seventy years ago still float to the front of my mind sometimes. She is long dead now, cremated probably after dying of a broken heart, broken spirit, and indescribable loneliness. She was not born to lie on hard cement floors staring through bars, her topaz eyes begging to please, please save her, take her back to her beautiful, free birthplace. I thought then and still think she was imploring me to get her out of there, to somehow get her home. It was the only way she had to communicate and I could only answer by speaking aloud to her what I wished could happen and knew could not. I still think about her as I shall all of what life I have left and will never forget those unblinking yellow eyes staring into the heart of a helpless little girl, pleading to be taken home.