"She'll be safe in the zoo."
"Yes, safe. And fat and lazy and dull, and stupid like some cow on a milking machine!..."
"And is freedom so important?!"
"YES! YES! She was born free and she has the right to LIVE free!"
Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna as George and Joy Adamson in the 1966 movie Born Free.
It's almost needless to say that I'm a huge fan of Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong. But my love of the 2005 remake also ultimately caused me to sit down and watch the original 1933 RKO classic on YouTube. It was time well spent, and I can certainly see why it has such a special place in so many people's hearts.
Now, there are definitely quite a number of differences in the plot and slant of each movie, with the relationship Ann Darrow chooses to have-or not have-with the titular gorilla being the most prominent.
One thing that doesn't change though, has a depressing inevitability to it each time, is Kong's last stand and death at the top of the Empire State Building. And both versions end with adventurer and filmmaker Carl Denham's immortal and now iconic last line in response to a reporter's dismissive comment: "It wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast."
A powerful, wonderfully paradoxical and well-written finish, I'll grant that much. But it's also something both versions of Carl Denham get dead wrong. Kong's protective, often possessive affection towards Ann Darrow wasn't what ultimately led to his demise-and it certainly wasn't Ann's fault either. Civilization and technology were what killed the former king of Skull Island.
No matter what version you watch or prefer, Kong's death, despite the damage and terror and human causalities he leaves behind while running amok through New York City, always comes across as a heartbreaking tragedy, with no sense of victory or praise of human courage and superiority.
It's nothing more or less than just a slow, sickening, terrifyingly impersonal execution, void of any nobility or fair play as the gunners in the planes pump bullets into a sensitive, magnificent beast whose only sin was to not want to be separated from the one being in the world that he cared for and to be at liberty in a human city. Death was the only outcome for Kong at this point, and his only escape from a freezing cold, confusing nightmare world of cars and asphalt and skyscrapers that he never wanted or asked to be brought into.
We all know of course, that King Kong is actually just a movie character, an 18-inch tall stop motion puppet covered in black rabbit fur in the original 1933 film, and a CGI motion-capture character in the 2005 remake. (You did great Andy Serkis!) He's imaginary, made up, never existed-and indeed, most likely couldn't exist as a flesh and blood creature for that matter.
But all the same, his iconic character and tragic fate underscore and bring into sharp relief how we human beings, as members of the very same "civilization" that did Kong in, relate to wild nature and its real-life untamed, noble denizens. This is particularly relevant in the case of zoos and other institutions that maintain animals in captivity.
We admire and revere the grizzly bear, the lion, the Nile crocodile, the jaguar, the wolf, the bison and rhino for their confident power and symbolic, free wildness. And yet we consistently seek to contain members of their species within small, unnatural environments where paying visitors can pass by, watch them for a few minutes and snap pictures or complain that the boring, stupid animals aren't doing a damn thing before moving on to fill their face with pizza or ice cream treats.
I happen to have the good fortune to live within an hour's drive of the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley. It's frankly a wonderful zoo, and its current director, Lee Ehmke, is famous in the zoo community internationally for being a masterful designer of exhibits that immerse visitors in the animal's natural environment, encourage safe, up close encounters with the animals, and most of all provide an animal with a stimulating, varied, and just plain fulfilling home.
Naturally, the Minnesota Zoo's collection of critters includes several species of big cats. On one of the zoo's trails, the newly remodeled Minnesota Trail, the last exhibit is home to a pair of male cougars.
As enclosures go, it's a pretty nice one, measuring about 80 feet long and 30 feet tall. There are three distinct, large panes of glass for viewing from the inside, and the top is covered by a sort of tent of chicken wire netting to keep the cats from escaping. There are two distinct ledges of carefully sculpted fake rock that more or less run the entire length of the enclosure, one located up near the wire netting, the second jutting out halfway from the manmade cliff.
There is a stream that runs along the bottom to provide water, trees that arch over the sides of the enclosure to provide shade, some stumps and parts of dead trees on the bottom part, other shady spots, and plenty of grass and wildflowers and other native plants growing inside at every level.
It's a nice, well-thought out exhibit, both highly naturalistic and aesthetically pleasing to the patrons that stop by to gaze at the cats through the three great panes of glass. It provides for the comfort of both cougars in nearly any sort of weather, and allows them to actively experience the rhythms of the seasons here in Minnesota, from the intense, muggy heat of August, to the piercing blizzards of January. They can see and hear birds and insects flying and singing and moving around, see the squirrels and chipmunks go about their business, and hear the other animals.
But these two cougars are still captives. A mature cougar tom in the wild roams over and patrols a territory that at a minimum, covers an area of 50 square miles. No enclosure can ever be big enough to suit one of these great cats.
And then there is the factor that on a psychological level at least, predators are presented in ways that are totally at odds with how they come across as wild creatures. You only need to spend ten minutes or so near any big cat exhibit to realize this difference. To encounter a wild, free-roaming cougar on an evening jog or hike, even if you only saw the cat for a few seconds before it spilt, with no barriers of any sort between you would be a spine-tingling, heart stopping experience-a visceral, humbling reminder that we self-important naked apes aren't always as in control as we like to think we are, that we too, can become part of the food chain.
But at a zoo, with the apex predator safely behind a moat, glass, or some other confidence-boosting barrier, parents feel comfortable enough to hold their little smiling yard apes up to the limits of the cat's zoo habitat and croon while they point, "Aww. See those big kitties Sarah? Look at the big, beautiful kitties over there! Do they remind you of our kitties at home? They're big, aren't they?"
Now don't misunderstand. I adore and have so much respect for zoos and the people that work at them. Properly run, well-thought out zoos can and do play extremely important roles in research, conservation, and-sometimes, but never enough-providing lasting education. Indeed, the Minnesota Zoo is famous for an award-winning beaver exhibit built before I was born, showcasing one of our state's more common mammals in an uncommon, wonderfully unique way. It has also been involved in the conservation and reintroduction of animals ranging from trumpeter swans to Javan rhinos to endangered breeds of livestock! Most of all, repeated trips to the place, along with other zoos and forms of exposure to wild creatures, have played no small part in making me the person I am today, a lover and champion of wild creatures.
But there is still something out of place, something that doesn't make sense, that is profoundly incongruous about taking a wolf, cheetah or any other animal that we idolize and cherish as being fierce and unrestricted by the boundaries and demands of urban existence (Is anyone else hearing the theme to Born Free playing in their head now at this point?), and then plunking it in a comparatively pocket-sized, artificial habitat just a few minutes away from a major metropolitan freeway.
That is what the climax to King Kong is ultimately about. Our species encountered something strange and powerful and magnificent and just plain beautiful, desired and succeeded in capturing it-and in the end, such a primordial and wild expression of Nature couldn't survive in the human world we transplanted it into.
"It was beauty killed the beast." Once more for the record, it's an impressive, lively line, I'll concede to that, but it's also really a red herring. Kong's undoing was a direct result of our curiouisity fueled compulsion to obtain and subdue nature's creatures, often for our own marvel and entertainment.
This worldwide, cultural obsession with nature's primal, wild icons can have real-life consequences which are every bit as tragic and horrifying as what we see happen to Kong at the end of both movies. A perfect, speaks-for-itself example can be found in the 6,000 square foot evidence warehouse for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, containing hundreds of thousands of confiscated products made from dead wildlife.
One wall is covered from floor to ceiling with endless rows and shelves of cowboy boots made from every exotic illegal skin you can conceive of. There are python and rattlesnake tennis shoes, ashtrays made from crocodile heads and gorilla hands, coats and hats made from the pelts of cheetahs, snow leopards, jaguars, and other species of spotted cats. One shelf houses a huge row of stuffed and lacquered sea turtles, one having been made into a guitar, and among them are several severed heads which were intended for use as paperweights.
There are rolls and rolls of python and crocodile and caiman skins, headdresses made out of parrot and eagle feathers, the skulls of wild cats both big and small. There are key chains made from the dried heads of chameleons and young crocodiles and the feet of birds of prey, coin purses made out of entire large frogs and toads, and complete skins that range in size from those of lizards and monkeys, to zebras, tigers, and even an elephant! Looking at them, it becomes all too apparent why many of these creatures are in serious danger of extinction-and it's all in the name of vanity, exotic curios, baseless traditional "medicines," or just standing out from the crowd.
And then there are the wild creatures that end up alive in the hands of those private individuals that are fascinated by animals, who deeply want to personally own and admire a living, breathing part of nature for themselves. This too, can go awry, especially if an exotic animal has specialized needs or formidable strength and natural weapons.
Whether you admire or despise them, the group PETA provides an effective picture of just what the results can be in several pages on its website that provide an up-to-date, highly informative record of all escapes, attacks, injuries, and deaths caused in America by big cats, bears, elephants, and nonhuman primates. The numbers are shocking.
And here I must now be honest and admit to being a member of the previous group I just mentioned, the owners of exotic pets. Last March, after a lot of thinking, I bought a six-month old Yemen chameleon whom I have named Sappho.
Unlike Kong, she was not snatched from her native home, the humid, semi-arid brushy hills and mountains on the western coasts of Yemen and Saudi Arabia. From the moment she first emerged from a mixture of sand and vermiculite with her brothers and sisters, the only life she's ever known has been one inside boxes.
She is healthy, gets plenty of food, water, warmth and light. I clean her cage as needed and sometimes take her out to climb and bask in the heat of the sun for a time under my supervision. As far as I can discern, she appears to be both healthy and content with her life-to whatever degree that term can apply to a lizard.
I also keep in mind that in the wild, chameleons are, like sparrows or gazelle, a prey species. A female Yemen like Sappho would probably live for 2 to 4 years in the wild, while a suitably cared for captive female can easily live 5, 6, even 7.
But ultimately, what end would Sappho prefer, if she had the ability to choose? To be killed and eaten by a hawk, jackal, or other predator, a death that would be painful, violent, and terrifying-but also one that would be relatively fast and happen while she was living free and still in reasonably good physical condition?
Or to live a far longer, fuller life, but then have her demise be a prolonged, drawn-out one as I use human knowledge and veterinary care to selfishly give myself just a few more weeks or months more with her, knowing that at some point it'll fail and she'll pass away as a decrepit geriatric, a sad, probably suffering shadow of her current self?
Sappho doesn't have to worry about extremes of temperature, about floods or droughts or unusual cold spells or brushfires. She doesn't have to worry about being harmed or captured by local people. She doesn't have to deal with nasty parasites like roundworms or ticks. She doesn't have to fight off overeager males or brawl with other females for the ownership of a section of scrubland.
Is an existence in the wild actually crueler to subject an animal to than a life in a high-quality captive setting? There are no easy or ready answers here. The only things I can say for sure about having brought Sappho into my life is that I'm glad I did, that I'm amazed and fascinated by her, that I care about her, that I'm glad she wasn't taken from the wild, and that I've vowed to be responsible for her until her last hour.
Zoos of course, don't let anyone other than trained, professional staff members interact or work with their wild charges...and they certainly aren't about to let them get rendered into products anytime soon either!
But even here, living the best lives and having the best fate a captive wild animal could experience, something is missing, visibly lost forever. We want to bring the exotic and strange and beautiful into our world and close to us so that we can stare into the eyes of these wonderful creatures and marvel at them. Trouble is, in doing so, we often strip them of the very aspects that drew us to them in the first place.
During my thirty-one years on this globe, I've had the great fortune and thrill to see a good deal of magnificent, charismatic animals in both captivity and in the wild. Bison. Elk. Desert bighorn sheep. Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. Pronghorn. Mule deer. White-tailed deer. Coyotes. Red fox. Black bear. River otters. Bald eagles. Golden eagles. Red tailed hawks. Harris hawks. Trumpeter swans. Sandhill cranes. Hawaiian monk seals. Harbor seals. Sea lions. Raccoons. Beavers. Brown and White pelicans. Green sea turtles. Southern stingrays. Tarpon.
But do I really, honestly need to say which of the two different settings was by far the most rewarding and satisfying to see them in, where they just looked their best? I didn't think so.
Certainly, I know that Sappho could never appear to me like one of her wild sisters, perched among the thorny branches of an acacia, basking at the top of a tamarisk bush, or picking her way across a clearing of gravel, free and wild and noble and simply belonging in her native habitat.
At the Minnesota Zoo, there is another king that like Kong, has been made to call a human-made enclosure its home against its will. For over 20 years, the Minnesota Zoo's Northern Trail has been home to a dynasty of the true king of the cats, the Siberian tiger.
These gorgeous, commanding felines, a size bigger than the lion and fully capable of killing Asiatic black bears or moose, are magnificent and inspire awe in nearly any setting. But tigers in zoos, no matter how spacious or naturalistic their habitats, no matter how seriously the institution takes their care and conservation, have a hopeless, dull, defeated impotence about them.
Self-sufficient, solitary predators that can kill a steer with one crushing bite to the neck, which make their living by expertly stalking and killing red deer and wild boar and roam vast tracts of forest are stripped of their purpose in nature, forced to rely on daily rations delivered by humans to survive and endure the attentions of hundreds of zoo goers.
And this rickety facsimile of wild nature can give a treacherous, dangerous impression. We read the books, watch the documentaries, visit the zoos, and through these vicarious experiences many people in their ignorance come to believe that the tiger, the harpy eagle, the gharial, the black rhino, the gorilla, the hyacinth macaw, the blood python, the leopard are all actually in great shape, alive and doing well because they just saw them that way.
"That way" is the operative phrase here. Because guess what? They haven't seen these creatures, not really, experienced them as they truly are or taken a good, up-close look at the threats they face from humanity's deadly combination of need and greed.
They've seen moving images, they've seen prisoners that are wildly out of context, ripped out of their ecosystem, reduced to breathing museum dioramas. Zoos are a different twist on nature. They aren't and can't be perfect, balanced fragments of the natural world outside our front doors. They're really just illusions.
The Wild as a concept simply isn't something that can be carefully contained or perfectly reproduced. The very idea of doing so flies in the face of the very definition of what wilderness and wild creatures are.
And yet we as a species still remain stuck between our desire to enjoy and experience wilderness and its freedom without having to actually endure any of the expense or risks or discomfort that the concept entails if it can be helped.
It would certainly seem that people's fascination with nature's exotic and bizarre-the pet wolves and leopards, the zorses, the albino cobras, the macaws, the tarantulas, the poison dart frogs, and yes, the chameleons-is essentially driven by a kinder, gentler version of the same impulses that end up producing things like elephant-foot wastebaskets, ivory figurines, python sneakers, bleached sets of shark jaws, chameleon head key chains, and paperweights featuring bats or bugs mounted in Lucite.
Animals end up paying dearly for such whimsy and desires…and not only with loss of their dignity, happiness, or freedom. All too often, exactly like Kong does on the silver screen, it costs them their lives.
I can only hope that nature is both resilient and flexible enough to handle our schizophrenic appreciation of its wonder and magnificence.