Joyland

The Midwest |

Signs

by Elizabeth Ellen

Greg moved out last month. It was his thirty-seventh birthday. Or his thirty-eighth. I don’t remember.

What I do remember is a knock a the door shortly after he left followed by my answering it, an act holy uncharacteristic of me, given my grave fear of strangers at the door. Or, more specifically, my grave fear of strangers at the door wanting something from me: a signature or to talk about God or water conservation or politics, something dull like that. I guess I supposed it was Greg, come back for a forgotten item of some sort. Instead it was a man I’d never seen before claiming to be a neighbor of mine and imploring me to order a sign of some sort stating something or other to put in my yard. The man was very insistent about the sign and it was hard to get him to take no for an answer or to go away/leave my property. He had this dream, he said, that involved everyone on our street and streets neighboring, placing the exact same sign in their yards. I briefly pictured the scenario he was describing and it reminded me of a scene in a movie trailer I’d seen recently in which several children are standing in the driveways of their houses bouncing balls at the exact same time. What I mean is, it was not an appealing thought. It had an element of doom.I did finally get the man to take no for an answer by telling him I’d think about it and allowing him to hand me a piece of paper that turned out to be an order form for the sign. As soon as I was inside the house, of course, I threw the order form in the trash without examining it closer.

Now my yard is one of only two on a street of forty or fifty that doesn’t have the sign and the lack of the sign seems to imply something about the two of us (though I have never spoken to the other neighbor), that we are less of one thing or more of something else I can’t quite articulate. The signs seem to be having a reverse effect of a scarlet letter, announcing for the world or for anyone driving down our street, I suppose, the sign owners’ purity or goodness and, by contrast, my lack of purity or lack of goodness. Most of the time I don’t even think about the signs, unless I happen to leave my house for some reason, as I did Saturday.

I had received in the mail one of the colorful brochures the zoo sends out, periodically, to update you on their acquisitions and to remind you of the many reasons you should visit. Greg and I had become members, in better times, and I guess we still were, even though he had moved out of the house, which, of course, the zoo had no way of knowing. The brochure served to remind me of my interest in the orangutans, or of my interest in one of the female orangutans, specifically, who was the indirect subject of a news story that had in recent months made local headlines and circulated the internet. The direct subject of the story was the female orangutan’s infant son who, for reasons unknown by the zookeepers, she had neglected to care for, despite having previously cared for, “more than adequately,” two other offspring before him. It’s unstated in the articles I could find how long the zoo gave her before determining her neglect and moving to a proactive path of placing the infant male with another female orangutan, though it was less than a week and probably less than a couple days. Nor does anyone from the zoo state specifically what the neglect consisted of: if she nursed him but would not hold him otherwise or if she held him but would not nurse him or if she had refused even to look at him immediately after giving birth. What all the articles do state is that the zoo first sent the infant orangutan, who is, by all accounts, “adorable,” to live with a twenty-something female orangutan named Sally at a zoo in another Midwest city but apparently that orangutan, Sally, didn’t take to the little guy either, or wouldn’t care for him adequately, according to zookeepers. So he was shipped off a few days later to a zoo on the west coast where a fifty-something (“late-aged”) female orangutan showed enough interest in holding the infant (there is video of her walking with the infant clinging fiercely to her forearm as proof) for the match to be determined a success.

I had driven the forty minutes to see the orangutan birth mother who was still, as far as I knew, on display at the zoo. She hadn’t, to my knowledge, been taken off due to a public outcry, which would have happened had she been a human mother, I was fairly certain. Similarly, I could find nowhere in the comment sections of any of the articles about her son, any name-calling with regard to her, nor any calls for the zoo to remove or otherwise “punish” her for her behavior which – in human terms – was, let’s face it, unconscionable. 

When I arrived at the orangutan habitat, I could not at first locate her in the outdoor enclosure where the rest of the orangutans were sitting, sunning themselves and foraging through the morning’s boxes of produce. There was a plaque on the wall near the enclosure with headshots of the various orangutans, their names, dates of birth, and relation to one another. The female I was looking for was named Yasmin and was thirty years old and had birthed three offspring. I stood looking for quite some time while various human families came up beside me, hesitating a minute or two, before moving on to the more exciting chimpanzee exhibit around the corner. (There was a one year old female chimpanzee named Nancy who was the covergirl of this month’s zoo brochure.) I thought, for a brief moment, it was possible Yasmin had been removed from public viewing. Then finally I spotted her, sitting upright with her back to the glass and a Snoopy blanket pulled over her head. I determined it was Yasmin only by deduction. I had already matched the other individuals on display to the faces on the plaque. There were only two adult females: Yasmin and Esmeralda, and Esmeralda was walking around the exhibit picking up sunflower seeds with her four year old daughter, Kayla, on her back. It was hard to say if Yasmin was depressed because I had often witnessed the orangutans sitting with blankets pulled over their heads. But I did wonder if there was some sort of humanlike regret Yasmin felt, now that her son was permanently gone. It seemed possible she had been initially overwhelmed at the sight of yet another infant to feed and to care for and had been a little slack in her mothering duties but was still deeply affected by his having been taken from her. Or maybe she didn’t care at all. It was hard to tell. Do animals remember? I think this question is still being determined by scientists and other animal professionals. But I did know that feeling, the one that first permits you to neglect someone to the point of their complete absence in your life and then second, after some indeterminate time has passed, informs you to feel a particular sort of longing that they are no longer nearby. It was possible Yasmin was experiencing that particular longing, but it was also possible Yasmin was moved, in this hour, solely by the sun beating down on her head. Either way, nothing outwardly about her indicated an individual that would neglect or, as it was stated in several articles online, “reject” her child. Nor did the other orangutans seem to be sitting in judgment of Yasmin. They seemed very preoccupied with foraging, though how would that look, anyway – sitting in judgment – to the casual human observer of the orangutans?

As an armchair biologist, I had read several articles online about the anthropomorphizing of animals and animal behavior by humans. In the past, anthropomorphizing was viewed almost exclusively in negative terms by scientists and other professionals in the animal-studying community, who seemed to believe those of us guilty of anthropomorphism (viewing a male kangaroo holding the head of a dying female kangaroo as a sign of sorrow, for instance, was considered fantastical thinking) were childish and less evolved intellectually.Currently, however, it seemed an increasing percentage of scientists believed some good came of humans believing animals capable of humanlike behavior and emotions.“It increases empathy for the animals,” one scientist was quoted as saying. Before news of the female orangutan, however, I’d never considered the flipside of this thinking, which is, if we believe animals – great apes, in particular – capable of compassion and grief and love, must we too believe them capable of selfishness and greed and abuse?

I had recently read an article about a scientific study of chimpanzees in which some of the younger, healthier chimpanzees had willingly given up their own food so that older, sicker chimpanzees could eat. What, then, however, are we to make of the ones who didn’t give up their food for the betterment of others but ate it themselves instead? Were they now to be viewed as greedy and selfish, in contrast with the more selfless and compassionate among them? Could we return to not viewing these individuals in terms of manmade morality, while applauding those who fit our human ideas of altruism? The article didn’t say.

I remembered once, many years ago when married to my first husband, watching a show on PBS about the sex lives of animals. The only image I had retained from that particular series was that of a pair of some sort of ‘monkey’ or lesser apes, engaging quickly in sexual intercourse behind a bush or tree while maintaining a constant lookout by each moving their heads swiftly from side to side. Occasionally they would see another monkey from which they were attempting to hide their ‘love making’ and would disengage from one another and sit side by side (they might as well have been whistling) and then when the coast was clear, they would instantly resume mating again, the male behind the female, thrusting swiftly and enthusiastically. The implication of this behavior seemed to be that they knew right from wrong and that they also felt guilty (or at least fearful) about engaging in the “wrong” behavior.

I don’t know if I have ever felt guilty (or fearful) for any of my behavior while married to Greg. It’s hard to feel something like ‘guilt’ once you hit an age at which death is less a concept and more your immediate future; it makes every day an end-of-the-world scenario – by which I mean, you have a tendency to do things you wouldn’t necessarily have done in prior, younger years, when it was considerably easier to be pious and righteous. Perhaps this aging and closeness to death played into the female orangutan’s lack of care for her most recent infant son. It’s impossible, of course, to know. Currently she was half-heartedly (more anthropomorphizing!) picking through a box of pellets and green beans, the more coveted strawberries and orange slices having already been gathered and eaten by the larger, male orangutan (I will resist here the impulse to add a hashtag). I was alone at the glass for a moment and I reached up, flattening my hand against it, in an attempt to signal her or to communicate with her. I beat my palm against the glass a few times as they implore you with signs not to do. She never looked up, anyway. Greg would have teased me, had he been here. “Elizabeth, the orangutan whisperer,” he would often say if we were standing outside the orangutan enclosure. Or, “Elizabeth, the chuckwalla whisperer,” if we were in the reptile house. Once, at one of the desperately small, roadside ‘zoos’ located in the Upper Peninsula, I’d thrown a Tic Tac to a monkey of some sort in a cage and been scolded for it by a gruff, towering man who I guess worked there but seemed as though he’d escaped from a Stephen King novel. He might as well have been carrying an axe (and maybe he was!). Greg never stopped teasing me about the Tic Tac incident, or the way I had cowered in the face of the axe man.

The last time Greg and I were at the zoo together, last Valentine’s Day, which was also, incidentally, our anniversary, we stood and watched the chimpanzees for almost an hour, in part because there was an older, male zoo volunteer standing nearby, reciting information about the chimps.

For instance, did you know that until the age of four, chimpanzee children can do no wrong, in the eyes of their parents? For instance, Swahili here, when he was three and a half, he’s now seven, but when he was three and a half, he would throw rocks at his father and the parents would seem to be mildly amused by this, almost to laugh, not to take the behavior at all seriously. But once he turned four, the mother began weaning him, by pushing him away, hitting him with sticks and other instruments, and the father began to spank or slap him when he did wrong. It’s very interesting, their family dynamics.”

I wouldn’t say I missed Greg’s presence at the zoo but I was constantly reminded of his absence. Is that the same thing? We haven’t decided yet whether his moving out means anything as far as the longevity or expirability of our relationship. Sometimes you just need physical space. And maybe that was what the female orangutan had needed when she stopped cuddling her son. There’s no way of knowing. I’m trying not to anthropomorphize!

I skipped the chimps - there being too large a crowd on account of the “cute” one year old, Nancy. All month, the zoo was providing Nancy with “birthday presents” for her to unwrap in the outdoor chimp enclosure. It seemed more entertainment for the zoo guests than for Nancy but I’m sure she enjoyed opening the boxes, too. (Is “enjoy” anthropomorphizing?)

The gorilla enclosure was the last of the great apes; another outdoor area walled in by thick glass and open to the sky on top. The enclosure was grassy and contained several trees with hammocks and tire swings attached to them. This particular gorilla family (if family is a politically correct term in the anti-anthropomorphic scientific community, I don’t know) was small, consisting only of a single adult male, a single adult female, and two juvenile males – presumably the offspring of the adult male and adult female. When I approached the glass, the two juveniles were furthest from me, toward the back of the enclosure, “playing” with a cardboard box, and the adult male and adult female were closest, the female just on the other side of the glass, sitting upright, picking at some grass near her feet. Within seconds of my approaching the glass, however, the adult male gorilla came over to the female, sort of pushing her into a reclined position on her back, just below where I was standing, almost at my feet. There were two or three other human families or groups of people standing near the gorilla enclosure at the time and they moved in closer to me now, gathering around with their small children and strollers to get a better look at the interaction occurring between the male and female gorillas. Very quickly the interaction began to look like a gynecological examination as we watched the male gorilla inch his way between the female gorilla’s parted legs, and push his face down toward her genital area. (This was the first time I felt the crowd move slightly back, heard a cumulative, “oh,” though no one at this point left. I guess they were more curious than uncomfortable still then.) He seemed at first to be examining her visually, using his fingers, or, digits, to spread open her labia, sort of inspecting the whole of her genitalia, but then a second or two later, he lifted his digits to his nostrils, smelling the vaginal fluids he had gathered on them. It was only when he pressed his lips directly to the female’s vagina, however, using a fourth sense: taste, that the two juvenile males seemed to notice their father’s behavior and immediately dropped the cardboard box with which they’d been playing to run quickly over, gathering around their mother’s lower half, next to their father. The larger, and I presumed, older, of the two juveniles, stood closest the father and held his face centimeters from his father’s face, following it down toward his mother’s genitalia, watching with keen curiosity his father’s mouth as it opened and closed, tasting her. Then he, too, began to touch/smell/taste his mother’s vagina, mimicking his father’s actions. The father, at this point, had stepped a bit to the side. And the younger, smaller juvenile male had a turn, copying his father’s and big brother’s activities, touching and tasting his mother in a similar, methodical fashion. This all happened, of course, in a matter of seconds, and the human crowd moved back again and made more “oh” sounds and finally one or two of them moved away from the gorilla enclosure entirely. I heard one small child ask her father, “What were the monkey children doing to the mommy monkey?” I waited to hear what explanation the father would give but he gave none, did not even correct her on her misuse of the word “monkey.” But, instead, began walking along the path toward the aquarium, in an effort, I supposed, to distract her, but also to avoid the embarrassment of fabricating an answer with an audience surrounding him.

Once I had observed, similarly, a group of mothers and their children watching as a pair of zookeepers threw dead rabbits to the vultures for a morning feeding. “What are they throwing them?” a child had asked. “Nothing. Come on, let’s go see the camels,” the mother had answered. Later I had seen the same child eating a hot dog at the zoo restaurant, and I had had the thought that he probably had no idea he was eating pig, either.

The funny thing was, within seconds of the crowd dispersing, the two juvenile male gorillas had gone back to playing with the cardboard box and the adult male gorilla had wandered off to one of the hammocks to lie down and the adult female had sat up and begun to pick her nose. Not one of them exhibited any sign of having been traumatized or upset by the sixty to ninety second interaction.

I tried to envision a world in which a human child might be permitted to inspect his mother’s genitalia for taste, sight and smell, without it being viewed as incest or sexual abuse.

Greg says I like to antagonize people. (I say I like to make people think.) Greg was always teasing me about my knee jerk contrarian instincts. Greg would have ordered the sign for the yard, for instance, not because he agreed with its sentiment, but because the guy asked him to. I would have said no even if I agreed with the sign’s message (and I wasn’t sure I didn’t).

“Yes, we humans are the most repressed animal, so what?” Greg would say every time we came to the zoo and I pointed out some animal behavior that proved this point. It didn’t bother Greg, the repression, the hypocrisy. Nothing bothered Greg, except maybe my need to be a contrarian. Except maybe my obsession with hypocrisy. I think he found it exhausting. And who could blame him? I was a bit exhausted by it myself.

I was still standing, though somewhat spacely, outside the gorilla enclosure when a new family approached the glass. “Ewww, gross, she’s picking her nose,” one of them said, pointing at the adult female gorilla. I smiled, remembering the better show they’d just missed, a few minutes earlier. “Oh, God, now she’s eating it!” the woman said. But she didn’t back away. She stood with her nose pressed to the glass, watching.