We were laughing as we approached the polar bear exhibit at the Portland Zoo on a crisp fall day just last week. It was a Monday, but we had taken the day off to come to the big city of Portland, Oregon to celebrate her birthday. We were newly married and she had not been to the Portland Zoo, so we joined the collective white (mostly), hairless (mostly), ape-like (mostly) crowd, gaping at representative specimens of our conquered earth.
It was a beautiful way to spend the day. We were safely exploring specimens that had long ago given up considering us as a meal. An encounter with the lion, tiger, mandrill or bear would have looked much differently had we met them in their natural habitat. Instead we stared at their calm and wise faces dumbly through protective glass or tall fence, mouths agape in wonder. My eyes met those of a Bengal Tiger, who averted his eyes dismissively. “Move it on down the line, mister,” he seemed to be saying. In another exhibit, an otter played alone in spite of my pleas for some kind of soulful exchange. Tapping on the glass was frowned upon, but I did so anyway. I was not even acknowledged. Even the hippos, who had been sunning themselves in the early morning warmth got up and, seemingly sensing a growing crowd, turned their faces to a rock wall and went back to snoozing. One farted noisily in our direction to uproarious laughter.
And then came my experience with the polar bear.
“Wow,” I said to Heather, pointing to a wall exhibit nearby, “he’s far larger than even a grizzly.” Heather nodded. “Did you hear about how the polar ice melting is causing real concerns for them? It’s so sad. I saw a documentary on them the other day. They’re starving because they can’t move around on the ice like they used to.”
Turning to the exhibit itself, I noticed mechanically generated waves lapping against the great animal. He sat staring vacantly ahead. He had a scar on his snout in the shape of a question mark. His great body moved gently back and forth, but the water also seemed tamed, apologetic for not being truer to its nature for the benefit of the massive mammal in this sterile place. A great sadness descended on me, darkly. “What have we done?” I whispered to myself.
The great bear appeared to hear me, somehow. He turned his head ninety degrees and looked at me alone. Our eyes locked, and a conversation ensued. It took maybe a minute but it seemed to last an hour, so much information passed between us.
“What have you done?” the polar bear said to me. I felt my eyes widen but knew enough not to look away or it would break the conversation. “That’s what I said, yes, but I meant…” “I know what you meant,” he said impatiently. He regarded me coldly. “You humans see me here and you say to yourselves, ‘look, a polar bear.’ But I am no bear. I am an exhibit. A bear is an extension of his habitat by his very nature. He has no choice; it’s what he is. He is Life exhibiting itself in the Manner of The Bear. You humans take the bear out of the environment and think what you are seeing is the same thing you would see in the wild. But you are wrong. What you see is Life manifesting itself in the Manner of the Captive. I look like a bear, but I am only a captive, a refugee. I have been eviscerated of my natural life force which I gain from the ice, the blood of the seal and the fish people, the great and wild tides of the ocean. These things have been removed from me, so I am but a shell. The same can be said of the waters that lap against me like a cowed and submissive captive. I have no respect for them. The same can be said of these rocks. The same can be said of the food I eat. They are all tame, and I have no respect for them.”
My mind was aflame. I knew he was right, but I felt I had to defend myself, to tell him we are trying to help. “We know about global climate change,” I volunteered.
“We know that at least a portion of it is human caused and we are trying to do things that slow it, like driving cars with better fuel efficiency and turning off lights in the house and… recycling...” I trailed off. The words sounded hollow to me, too.
“You’re turning off lights you don’t need in the first place, and driving cars to places you don’t need to go that get thirty miles per gallon rather than twenty three?” The great animal snorted.“Whole fisheries are being decimated. Salmon are becoming harder to find every year, and they do not return to rivers where you humans used to marvel at them, let alone survive by them. You see pictures of grass growing where none in human memory has ever grown, and great rivers fed the year round by melting glaciers in places where rivers never ran. And you’re driving less? Some of you are recycling? That’s your solution?”
He paused. Then we said the same thing simultaneously. “It’s not enough,” except I added, “…is it?” and he added, “…by a long shot.” My heart sank.
The conversation was over except for one last piece of advice. “We animals in this zoo all speak the same language. We speak it when there are fewer humans around to interfere with the energetic transmission of the ideas. Go see the black bear. He has lost his mind. He no longer knows to which species he belongs. Being so close to his natural habitat, seeing it just beyond the great fences, has done that to him. Go see him, and be aware of the other sights that present themselves to you today; you will see the fate of the humans. All because you will not listen to Life.” He turned away. “We are done speaking now.” The grey animal blurred, as did the rocks and the impotent waters. I turned and said to Heather, careful to hide my tears, “Let’s go, huh?” She quietly nodded and I wondered if she had heard anything, as I had. But I wasn’t sure how to ask that, so I just took her hand and we walked towards the black bear…exhibit.
We saw two more things that day that stick in my memory and that haunt my dreams.
On a paved walkway through what was once a deep, old growth forest we looked down upon a mid-sized black bear. He paced twenty yards, turned and walked back, walked twenty yards, turned in precisely the same spot, and paced back. This he repeated for the five minutes I could bear to watch him. He never looked up and showed no signs of curiosity or intelligence. He just appeared to be searching for something he would never find, that he could never make appear. My heart was sick, as if I had caused this, which of course I had - by my compliance with a system that profits from the exploitation of all Life.
Finally making our way to the condor exhibit, we saw a massive, prehistoric-looking bird on the ground. He was violently eating, tearing the flesh away from some very dead animal.
It was the grey, bloodless body of a man. --aspenApril 2016