January 03, 2008

Mauling & Mayhem at the San Francisco Zoo

We already had the wild animals but the circus didn't come to town until Mark Geragos, Esq., made his appearance for Tatiana's victim of the Famous Christmas Day Attack at the San Francisco Zoo. It's all there now, another made-for-TV biopic with new story lines every day and every angle played to within an inch of its life.

It so happens that I have had a long, long association with this particular zoo, nearly as long as anything in my life. It was called the Fleishhacker Zoo in those days, in the mid-Fifties, and my first of many visits was occasioned by the periodic weekend marooning to which my younger brother and I were subjected by our parents, to a small, fog-swept house in the Outer Sunset, not far really from the zoo itself, where our paternal grandmother lived with her third husband. We made the most of it; we were hardy and inventive boys, and even on the most stultifying of Saturday evenings, while the old folks watched Lawrence Welk on their tiny black-and-white, we managed to entertain ourselves.

But during the day we needed to get out, so we'd be loaded into the ancient black Dodge coupe and driven to Fleishhacker Zoo. Over and over again. If we were lucky, we'd be there when the Lion House was in operation, when the big cats were brought in from the grottoes outside into small individual cages. A keeper would pass along a narrow aisle between a restraining rail and the cages with a wheel barrow full of horse meat (chosen, I realize now, because it probably tasted a little feral), and toss the lions and tigers their lunch. The bedlam in that cavernous space was unforgettable. Lions and tigers, in full-throated roar, demanding to be fed.

Seeing them outside in their paved enclosures was not much of a thrill. They didn't do much, of course, because they were bored out of their minds. Maybe somewhere deep in their limbic cortices they recognized that they were the enslaved representatives of their species, displayed to provoke sympathy for the wild cousins still out there in the real world. The SF Zoo always had a bad rap, and even after some healthy changes in the enclosures it was always cited as an example of the cruelty of zoos. I could see that even then, as an eight-year old boy. It was kind of a maximum security lock-up for African and Asian beasts.

One thing I never felt was any sense of danger. I could imagine that those magnificent Siberian and Bengal tigers, in all their sinewy and sinuous glory (so evident when you saw them up close in the Lion House) could escape the grotto if they really felt like it. But looking at them lying around in the windy cold a mile from Ocean Beach, you knew they had no interest in bothering anyone. They were there to serve their time, a life stretch with no possibility of parole. Geragos would understand that, since his most famous client is on Death Row and will leave San Quentin in a box.

The reports are now trickling in that Tatiana was taunted, teased and provoked by a group of boys standing at the rail of her grotto. Duh. Geragos claims that the eyewitness testimony of independent observers with no connection to the zoo is in some unspecified fashion part of a zoo cover-up and PR campaign to deprive his clients of the wrongful death settlement they so obviously deserve. The public, of course, is overwhelmingly on Tatiana's side. She was shot dead at the scene. The zoo was closed for nine days and then reopened with all kinds of newfangled "safety glass" between the viewers and the grotto and warnings and bullhorn announcements to "protect the public," all done on the advice of the City's lawyers, of course, since everyone is now on notice that tigers can jump and climb if provoked, and if it happens again... So that future little boys can have the immediacy of the experience of seeing a big cat diminished by these distancing contraptions, while we all titillate ourselves with the thrill of phony danger held at bay by more "security."

And all that was ever necessary was to leave Tatiana alone. Just look at her, as she looks at you, and behave your damn self. A lost art in these coarse and hooligan times.

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