“Harper is trained not to kill us,” said a young man standing with his back to a large outdoor enclosure. Its earthen floor was peppered with stuffed animals. A trainer for the conservancy, he faced us, an attentive crowd of fifteen or so people, including adults with young children, couples, and a group of early twenty-somethings.
The trainer held a stick tipped with a tennis ball. “Touch!,” he said, pressing the ball against the chain-link fence surrounding the enclosure, and from behind a large cable spool where she had been licking herself, a mountain lion sprang forth, her gait dense, fluid, and direct, like syrup pouring from a faucet, this rush to reach the fence and nudge the ball with her snout, a behavior that the trainer rewarded with a chunk of raw meat, which she downed in one, two gulps.
Nobody clapped, but the audience gleamed with attentive faces. According to the trainer, these exercises helped to stave off boredom and keep the mountain lion intellectually stimulated. Again and again, she nose-bumped the ball on command and swallowed the bloody treat, leading me to wonder if this was the animal equivalent of watching someone solve the same crossword puzzle over and over. Too tame for Barnum and Bailey, these interactions between human and cougar didn’t shock or astonish, but created opportunities for people to observe and wonder at this large, tawny cat.
Looking at animals has taught us that they possess intelligence, complex social structures, sophisticated methods of communication, and unique, breathtaking adaptations, which in turn has made us realize that some of the ways we view animals—in circuses or theme parks—reveal more about our desire for unnatural spectacle than the creatures they exploit.
While the trainer delivered a talk weaving facts and statistics about mountain lions as a species with details about this one in particular, two adult women and a young girl joined the crowd. No more than three feet tall with blonde ringlets spanning more than half her height, the girl approached the enclosure, prompting the mountain lion to bound over and eye her as it paced back and forth. The audience erupted in loud gasps and “Oh!”s at the mountain lion’s sudden and deliberate trajectory—its predatory intent.
That, of course, is why we came to see the wild animals. It’s the longing that inspires us to visit zoos and national parks, this hope to witness animals being themselves, acting out their unscripted and unrehearsed behaviors, a genuine flash of fang, so long as we’re a safe distance away or separated by a fence. Secure in our viewing areas, we’re free to admire and learn about the alligator floating in its pool or the bear feeding its cubs. Looking at animals can be beneficial for both them and us, I think, so long as we consider them to be more than entertainment.
Looking at them, we hope to be startled into understanding.
1-5p, Saturdays and Sundays (and 7 days a week for outdoor visits only)
$6 for kids (2-12), $8 for adults
The Creature Conservancy, 4940 Ann Arbor-Saline Rd.
734-929-9324 | thecreatureconservancy.org