At the Los Angeles Zoo, well into our visit, just after a lunch of cheese pizza and a drink in a container shaped like a smiling crocodile, I gripped my son’s hand and hauled him quickly past the chimpanzee exhibit, which we had to pass by in order to get to the kiddie train, which was suddenly all T could talk about. I glanced behind me and noticed my mother was not keeping up and I experienced a wave of panic. Chimps were pounding—POUNDING—on the viewing window, aggravating other chimps so that in seconds chimp-mania could be heard from the LA Zoo down the coast to the Queen Mary in Long Beach, a crescendo of nightmarish OOOk OOOk AHHHk AHHHks. I was looking around for zoo guards or safehouses or trees I might be able to climb with my son and my mom and hide from escaped chimps or if the chimps discovered us in the tree, I could kick them down with my Nikes and my mom could bash them with her purse or no, over there was the brand new elephant exhibit, we could rush over there and hide behind a friendly Asian elephant, except that the fence surrounding the exhibit hummed and was probably highly electric, so our best bet was the desert tortoise exhibit—I was thinking as the chimps went insane—and hiding in the tortoise dens, perhaps using a pretzel to coax one to block the entrance with its massive shell so that———
Because the zoo, for me, is a little Jurassic Park waiting to explode with escapees, starting with the chimp exhibit and spreading from there. The first time I took T to the zoo, when he was three months old, I spent the visit furious with myself for not stashing a crowbar in the bottom of the stroller just in case escapees threatened us and I felt so, so irresponsible for bringing a little innocent babe to a park filled with dangerous beasts and if my father-in-law hadn’t been with us, I would have insisted to my husband that we leave the ghastly zoo immediately because it was bad enough that the enclosures/pens/exhibits were so small (I mean, no wonder the chimps go nuts and the lions are always asleep and the otter swims in circle after hopeless circle) and worse that one earthquake could unleash residents of the African veldt and then where would we be, but running for the exit with the panicked masses. A crowbar, a crowbar, my breast pump for a crowbar, I thought to myself (incessantly) that first visit with T.
“Like those chimps that ripped that guy’s face off,” I told my mom and she looked horrified and responded, weakly, “Whaaaaaat???” “You know,” I said, as we paused on a bench so my son could gulp crocodile-sippy and catch his breath. We were next to the tortoise exhibit. We couldn’t hear the chimps anymore. Perhaps they’d killed each other. “It was all over the news,” I told my mom as I cased the tortoise exhibit for hiding places. “This couple visited a chimp that used to be theirs and that they donated to a wildlife sanctuary type place and during the visit they were attacked by escaped ‘rogue’ chimps and the husband had his face ripped off. You didn’t hear about that?” “Oh my gosh!” my mom said, paling. “Yeah,” I continued. “I think they pretty much wrenched off his nose. Or bit it off, or whatever. And Jane Goodall,” I said as my mom looked like she might throw up, “Jane Goodall would never let her son, when he was a little boy, near the chimps without her because she knew they’d kill him if they could.” My mom was ashen. We followed T past the tortoises and the empty tapir exhibit (TAPIR—HARMLESS, I was thinking) and watched him run gleefully for the kiddie train. I felt guilty. I had not been absolutely truthful with my mom about the Jane Goodall information. I can’t remember if JG said the chimps would actually kill her son, but that bit was crucial to my point—which was: YOU CAN’T TRUST THE WILD, EVEN IF IT’S PENNED. “What really amazes me,” I told my mom as we watched my son listen to the train-ride-lady tell him the train was broken. “Is how people grab their kids and run FOR the chimp exhibit when theh chimps bang on things and bare their teeth and scream. It’s like running FOR the spewing volcano or sailing FOR the whirlpool or sticking out your arm so the rabid dog can gnaw it to the bone.” “Hm,” my mom said with great sadness as I scooped my devastated son up in my arms and promised him an ice cream cone to compensate for no train ride. He lost his balance when I released him and skinned his left knee on concrete. As I carried my weeping, exhausted child a quarter of a mile to the exit and the ice cream stand, I thought about my zoo fear and how I keep coming back for more and I wondered, Who am I? A mother, or a—what’s that word—do I mean sadist—no—it’s coming—wow, the flamingo exhibit really stinks today—I wonder if I’ll get a nap later—oooh, that ice cream looks so good—masochist, that’s it. Am I a mother, or a masochist? No, that’s not right. Am I a mother or a—I would so love some ice cream—a repressed zoologist. No, that’s not right, I thought as my son generously offered me a bite of his vanilla ice cream. Am I a mother or a—what time were we up this morning? 4:30? I’m tired. I’m just tired. Again. Mmm…
I didn’t ask my mom her opinion on whether I was a sadist, masochist, repressed zoologist, paranoid freak or simply brain-fried from lack of sleep. I figured I had put her through enough for one day.