A Space Where We Can Forget Ourselves

A Relaxing Day

I recently spent a relaxing day at the local zoo. It was a hot summer day, and most of the animals were in various states of laziness. But the people watching was worth the price of admission.

Zoos fascinate me. Local governments invest huge amounts of money to collect exotic beasts and put them on display. They sink vast sums into recreating the tundra, the jungle, and the dessert, all for the animals’ comfort. And yet, the biggest appeal of zoos often isn’t the animals at all, it is the people who visit them.

A hot afternoon in the middle of summer is not the time to visit a zoo. The harsh sun, the hot temperatures, and all those paved walkways worsen the experience. The animals know better. Even dessert natives, like the camels, rest in the heat. Creatures who thrive in cooler climates disappear entirely into the relative coolness of their shelters. On a hot July Sunday, I knew we would spend a lot of time straining to see the fleeting glimpse of sleeping beasts. But summer is also the zoo’s busiest season and that made the visit appealing despite the laziness of the creatures who lived there.

Zoos bring people together. As one of the few sources for close encounters with live animals from far away, they draw together patrons from all walks of life. They transcend the things that divide us, putting people of different races, cultures, and backgrounds together for a common purpose: seeing cute, exotic, and fascinating animals. This commonality makes them a rich source for the casual people watcher.

Visitors at the zoo take all forms. They are flamboyant and reserved. They slide along quietly or charge through in large groups. They are black, white, and brown, rich and poor, young and old, all there together in that one special place.

As I walked among the exhibits, the people gathered wherever they could catch a glimpse of a gorilla or a zebra. There was a sense of peace in that united purpose. Adults stood back so children could slip through. Groups waited patiently for one another to snap photos of scrambling lizards or playful penguins. Strangers pointed out curious birds or reclusive snakes to one another, remarking as though they were friends.

As I stood in the summer heat, I watched mothers push strollers with happy, and sometimes cranky children. I watched fathers lift their daughters and sons so they could glimpse a sleeping tiger or a lazy baboon. I saw the elderly and disabled pushed along by their families, still eager to visit the newest additions to the zoo. Young, and old, they gathered together to see these exotic beasts set out on display.

And there, amid this melting pot of common experience, were the caricature artists. People paid to exaggerate our differences for the sake of humor. These skilled artists quickly sketched out oddly shaped heads, elongated noses, and goofy faces for our amusement. Set apart from the animal habitats, under a shelter between two food kiosks, the artists seemed almost out of place amidst the din.

I watched as a young black boy squirmed in the caricature artist’s chair. From the state of the picture it seemed he must have been sitting there for some time. He was a fine-looking boy – healthy and alert to the world around him. But the image the caricature artist drew showed something different. It showed large ears and bucked teeth, shining eyes and a dopey expression. Maybe, I thought, this artist was seeing this young man in a different light.

Next to the boy, a family gathered as another caricature artist finished their sketch. Each face, suspended in a swirl of color, could be recognized in the family pose. But again, the forms were distorted. Long, peanut-shaped faces, squinted eyes, large lips, and wispy hair smoothed out the depth on the models’ faces. The age, the wisdom, and the stories those faces told were all erased in favor of the light-hearted sketch.

I stopped to watch the caricature artists apply their trade. Looking at the samples pinned to the wall behind them, I saw themes emerge: Doe eyes, bulbous noses, shaggy hair, and big teeth. These were the commonalities the artists saw. For them, it wasn’t about culture, or community, or even animals. To them, we all could be reduced to a selection of impish features.

I began to wonder how that caricature artist would have seen me? What features would have stood out to her as she hurried to earn a buck with her art? Would it be my pointed nose? My glasses or earrings? Maybe my round face, or long braid would catch her attention. My skin tone or choice of clothes were just features to her, nothing more. Like the baboon’s red nose or the giraffe’s long neck. My race, class, and culture wouldn’t matter to her any more than they did to the lemur who stared back at me through the glass munching on his food pellets.

Maybe that is the true lesson to be learned from a mid-summer trip to the zoo. It’s not about catching a glimpse of a yawning lion, or hoping the otters will start playing. It’s not really about zoology or random animal trivia at all. It’s about providing a space where we all can forget ourselves and our differences and, for just a moment, simply be people.

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