By Cate Kennedy

Observing the Wildlife

Bring up Melbourne Zoo on Google maps and click on ‘Satellite’, and there it is, a green patch in the middle of a flat grey city’s grid. The networks of roads and houses are ruled and uniform, they branch out for miles in all directions from Royal Park, spreading like circuitry in a complex computer, but here is the Zoo, a striking organic shape like a heart or a lung.

A lung is kind of how it’s used, too, a green breathing organ entered by daytime city dwellers who have pushed their prams down cement and macadam streets to come through its gate like a trachea, to stroll out into its branching pathways. Into a stand of tall black bamboo, smelling of south-east Asia, into a warm tropical microclimate full of floating butterflies. Sometimes, if they’re smart enough to have a yearly pass which allows them unlimited visits, they only stay for an hour or so, check out the elephants or the giraffes, and stroll out again, oxygenated and revived.

I wonder what would happen if the animals were relocated, and the zoo remained just this park, a museum of disappearing habitats and cherished, endangered ecosystems, a small remnant of green where we step away from our human-scale built environment and into another reality. A salvaged grassland, a cloud forest, an enclosure approximating a desert landscape. Here behind this glass, how the Everglades used to look. Imagine if a sanctuary like this was slowly repopulated with insects and wild, bold city birds, with foxes and skinks and nocturnal feral cats. What would make its way to an ark like this? What creatures besides us, grey-faced and exhausted and wary, refugees from the world we have created?

I watch two young women standing in front of the baboons’ enclosure; one taking photos with a big, expensive, sophisticated camera.

‘These are the ones I really don’t like,’ she tells her friend distastefully, who could be her assistant.

‘Why not? Because they stink?’

‘No. Because … I mean, eating something else while it’s still alive, that’s just so not right, and that’s what they do,’ she replies. ‘I mean, that’s fully disgusting.’

She presses the shutter and her camera, zoomed in on the baboons, gnashes like teeth. ‘Come on, come on,’ she mutters. ‘Look over here’. One of the baboons turns her way and her camera makes the same sound; snap, snap, snap, crunch and consume. The baboon gazes at the lens with interest, or at least it looks like it to me. The girl’s got what she wanted, whatever that is. ‘OK, let’s go,’ she says dismissively.

I wander down towards the giraffes. What can you even say about an animal like a giraffe? Something God made while he was hungover? Every fun fact about a giraffe makes them all the more wonderful. A giraffe’s hoof can break a lion’s back. There are special elastic blood vessels in its neck to protect its brain when it lowers and raises its head. Their lungs are huge – they can hold 55 litres of air – to pump oxygen up that neck. That amazingly patterned hide is so thick that at one time warriors used it to cover shields, and the hide is what also accounts for that odd smell coming off their skin; it’s full of antibiotic secretions and parasite repellents, because even though a giraffe’s tongue is so long it can lick itself all over its face, it can’t twist its head down and around to rid its hide of ticks. Every time I see a giraffe, the shock of mesmerised delight is almost as good as the first time I ever spotted one. I step aside, on the viewing platform, for a weary young mother pushing a pram, whose child strapped inside is full of questions.

‘No, you can’t pat it and you can’t RIDE on it,’ the young woman sighs as she wheels past me. ‘It’s a freakin’ GIRAFFE.’

At the airport I see a guy wearing a t-shirt that says ‘98% chimp’. Like many novelty t-shirts, I can’t help wondering what sort of people buy these. To proclaim what? Is the message one of defiance, a celebration of animal nature? Is it anti-creationist? He sat near me in the departure lounge and I had to lean over and ask him.

He looked down, as if reading his t-shirt for the first time. ‘I haven’t really thought about it,’ he said. ‘My workmates gave me this. On my birthday.’

Which is funny, because several theories posit that humans are the only primates to possess self-insight. Studies comparing sequences of aligned human and chimpanzee DNA first emerged in the 1970s, and even today, with the entire chimpanzee genome mapped, the numbers still run at about 98%. There’s some other science geek stuff you can read up on about nucleotides in a protein sequence making up an additional 3% of differences in our genetics, but meanwhile there’s a fortune in t-shirts to be made. I check them out online. Some are called geek t-shirts. One guy says he prefers the new style, which say 98.76% chimp – because ‘it’s nerdier’. One website sells them with an image of a chimp in a crown of thorns, and this one’s called an atheist t-shirt.

Sellers try to spruik their products by matching them with keywords or terms they think potential customers might type into their search engine. So on eBay one t-shirt is advertised, in a sequence which encapsulates a sort of summary of human evolution: ‘Funny geek science evolution nerd awesome Darwin tee’.

And OK, we share 98% of our DNA with chimps, and 98.3% with gorillas, but to get things in perspective we also share 70% of it with slugs, and 50% of it with bananas.

The one that stops me in my tracks – the only one I think we should really be paying attention to — is that every human being on earth shares 99% of their DNA with every other human.

If you want to sleep well at night, don’t sit up doing research into what happens to zoo animals while humans are engaged in war. Don’t read about what happened to the animals at Ueno Zoo in Japan during the days of World War II. Or animals in the Dresden Zoo, or Berlin Zoo. Or the zoos in Kabul and Bagdhad, just a few short years ago, or Tripoli Zoo just last year.

Zoos are battlegrounds, their victims strafed and eaten, bombed and maimed. And yes, humans during these times were also starving to death, dying slowly of shrapnel wounds, being shot, lying in their own filth crying for water. It’s just that the animals, like children, seem so much more vulnerable as collateral damage, being caged, helpless and innocent of the conflict.

When human systems break down, it’s then we see how paper-thin the veneer really is. The birds and antelopes, generally, are the species that disappear first to be eaten, then the reptiles killed in case of escape, the big cats poisoned or shot, the elephants starved. It doesn’t take many days for a zebra to look, to a hungry carnivore, like meat on the hoof. Animals being what they are, and humans being what they are.

So here’s just one image for you – the female elephant Tonky at Ueno Zoo in 1943, slowly being starved to death, starving secretly even as a memorial service for the destroyed zoo animals was held nearby as a propaganda exercise for the Japanese army. It took a month for her to die, and all through that month she begged for food by doing her tricks over and over again before she succumbed.

Maybe that’s it, the 2%, right there in that microcosmic act. It’s that 2% that worries me. That 2% that assures us that what separates us from all other animals is the evolution of morality, the capacity for altruism and sympathetic behaviour based on abstract notions of right and wrong.

That, and the smothered traitorous thought of how much better the self-regulating systems of the planet and its species would operate if we just weren’t here. If there’d been some minute change enacted about 7 million years ago so we’d continued to use our marvellous evolving opposable thumbs for climbing and fishing for termites with sticks, rather than for making metal, grasping a trigger, wielding a machete or chainsaw or test-tube or smartphone.

‘Humanity’s true moral test,’ says Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, ‘its fundamental test … consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect humankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.’

Maybe we should all be wearing t-shirts that say ‘Beware: 2% other’. I wonder how many takers I’d have for that one, if I advertised it on the net, and what keywords I would use.

Portrait of Cate Kennedy

Cate Kennedy

Her first collection, Dark Roots, was shortlisted for the Steele Rudd Award in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards and for the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, and is currently a text on the VCE Literature syllabus.

She is also the author of a travel memoir, Sing, and Don’t Cry, and the poetry collections JoyflightSigns of Other Fires and The Taste of River Water, which won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry in 2011. Her most recent book is her second collection of stories, Like a House on Fire (Scribe, 2012), which won the Queensland Literary Award and was shortlisted for the inaugural Stella Prize, and is also on the Victorian school syllabus, as a Year 12 English text. 

She lives in Castlemaine, Victoria, with her daughter, and is working on a new novel.

Further reading

Working with Words: Cate Kennedy on her writing life, and other bookish things

Cate Kennedy on book covers

Beyond the Couplet: Cate Kennedy and Craig Sherborne on their writing practice (video)

A Gala Night of Storytelling: Cate Kennedy (video)