Of Striped Food and Polar Bears
I met my first zebra the summer I worked at the Erie Zoo as a fill-in zookeeper. My duties included chopping apples and carrots for the elephant breakfast one week, thawing foul-smelling slabs of mystery meat for the lions a week later, and on the third week, throwing frozen mackerel across a wide moat to a pair of jaded polar bears. My assignment shifted according to which of the regular zookeeping staff was taking vacation.
In mid-July, my supervisor assigned me “up the hill, with the hoof stock,” and I was absolutely delighted. My new charge included caring for the small zebra family, a group that had long fascinated me from afar. The alternating white and black stripes made the zebras seem almost magical, an animal more from the Land of Oz than from Africa.
I had seen birds with outrageous plumage, of course—the zoo had three peacocks, five flamingos, exotic parrots—and I owned a small home aquarium with various tropical fish sporting peculiar patterns, but such distinctive markings are rare in four-legged land animals. I just knew that such a visually striking creature would be fascinating in close quarters.
And so Monday came, and I finally spent some time caring for the boldly banded mammal of my imagination. The zebras, it turned out, each and every one of them, were obstinate, smelly, and deadly dull. Perhaps the dullest animals in the zoo.
The zoo had two world-weary horses—retired Clydesdales—but they, at least, would wander to the fence out of curiosity when I approached, and if I fed them a handful of grass and weeds would flash their eyelashes in what seemed like gratitude. We had a hundred-year-old turtle that slept most of the day, but when he did wake up he seemed wise and venerable, and the beak he used to chew his lettuce was fascinatingly prehistoric.
But the zebras?
No personality whatsoever. They just chewed, and stood there.