An essay by A. Kendra Greene

Published by Drunken Boat


The Jardín Zoológico de Santiago is halfway up a hill—high enough that the llama pen looks out over the city’s blanket of smog, and the Virgin Mary, at the top of the hill, looks out over the llamas. The base of the hill is populated by pigeons missing feathers or feet, men selling foam lizards on wire leashes and rubber spiders that drop from your hand like a yo-yo. The hill itself, Cerro San Cristóbal, is steep enough to merit a funicular. The zoo is the only midway point on the funicular, the only stop between the concession carts and the Virgin, the car and its counterweight pulling even as you step out onto the platform. The zoo attracts tourists and school groups and couples skipping school, and when a child calls out, “Gorila!” there is no sign on the chain link enclosure to say that the dark ape in question is actually a chimpanzee. Context is kept to a minimum, and the zoo has no shortage of certain kinds of silence. It is a curious place to die.

I remember seeing pictures of New York’s Bronx Zoo from the late 1800s: it was all iron bars and concrete, plain and easy to hose down, stark in the pictures as I imagine it was stark in real life. The pictures bore a striking resemblance to Chile’s national zoo as I found it in 1998. Granted, there had been some progress, some innovation, a trickle of the enrichment programs popularized and implemented at other zoos around the world. The polar bears, for instance, had been given a plastic five-gallon bucket to bat around. And their food was frozen in blocks and hucked into the water at meal time so they’d have something to do, a puzzle to solve, at least for the 10 or 15 minutes until they shattered the ice and pawed out the fish. 10 or 15 minutes, twice a day, is at least something. Otherwise it was just the water and the bucket and the sloping concrete cage, all the same kind of cloudy white, all the same kind of blank.

The dumpster was standard issue. You see the same kind of big metal box, always green, at office buildings and apartment complexes and construction sites, usually full of plywood or garbage bags or thin plastic sacks of office paper and coffee cups and spit-out gum. What made the zoo dumpster special was the approach. The zoo dumpster was on a platform built into the hill, a paved hauling road on one side and a dumpster-height wall on the other. The wall was a kind of cliff, the terminus of a wide dirt path that started from the “staff only” sign and ran up past the tool sheds and the surgery and the chinchilla hutch until it arrived at the dumpster, where it promptly plummeted six feet straight down.

The dirt path ended an inch or two from the dumpster’s lip, the dusty dry path suddenly a chasm, a pit. A pit half-full of feces, limp latex gloves, hypodermic needles splayed at all angles, broken brooms, soiled wood chips and newspapers, a discrete scattering of flies, and all the peels and rinds and bones and scrap left over from feeding an ark. There was also, as I looked down, one perfect white swan. Dead, sure, but perfect. No sign of injury, no scent of decay, just the ivory mass of its body, the sinew loop of its neck. Swans are big, so big the crush of their beating wings can kill a man, and death does not diminish them.

“You can’t throw away a swan,” I thought.

But, of course, you can.

You can, I had already learned, walk around in tiger cages, with the tigers still in them.

A visiting vet once reminded me to keep a wide berth if I decided to walk around the head of the anesthetized feline out cold at our feet. “You never know,” he said as we leaned on the cat and drew blood. “You can’t be too careful.” But the zookeepers, the people who spent their whole day, every day, with the animals, the zookeepers taught me better. They said, “Eehhh.” They said if you know what you’re doing, especially if you’ve brought the tigers up from cubs, all you need is a garden hose, running water, and your thumb over the nozzle. The tigers come too close, you give ‘em a spritz. Problem solved.

“Don’t tigers like water?” I asked. “Aren’t they good swimmers or something?”

“They don’t like the spritz,” the keeper said.

“Does it make them mad?” I asked. “What if the spritz makes them mad?”

We were already inside the cage. We were already walking the concrete strip at the base of its grassy slope while the tiger paced a parallel track 20 yards uphill. My hands were empty. The zookeeper held the hose. I wished for my own hose, for the broom I’d foolishly left leaning against the gate.

The keeper said, “Eehhh.”

You can also walk around in the lions’ cages, I’d learned, so long as you first put the lions themselves in an even smaller cage—the cell within a cell in the middle of their enclosure. Yes, flush a dozen lions into that tiny metal box, pull the three metal panels in their tracks until they clang into place and cover the doors—then let yourself in and walk about as you please, carry on a conversation, toss bones long and thick as your forearm over the perimeter where you’ll pick them up later. But please, if you don’t mind, try to speak up. Try to talk over five lionesses beating paw over paw against the metal doors. Try to forget that each door is just a single sheet of steel and the noise a bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang, the beat of a boxer working a speedbag, paws hitting the metal panels as fast as if they were running, as if—just to get to you—these lions would manage to sprint straight uphill.

There were other places in the zoo one might cheat death, but lions—I was convinced—lions would kill you. On sight. For no other reason than the faint sound of your ticking heart. I thought about this as I picked up a lion cub out of its crib in la sala de crianza. La sala de crianza was home to creatures too fragile to be on display: the very young, the very old, and the very sick. Outcomes for our wards were predictable. Young things got stronger and moved out, old things lingered and stayed on, and sick things almost invariably died. The lion cub came to us when the mother wouldn’t nurse her. The cub was the size of a puppy, except instead of feet too big for her body, it was the head she would need to grow into. Oversized noggin notwithstanding, she had virtually no jaw strength. With a little help, she’d get my fist in her mouth, do her best to gnaw on it, and after a while I’d pull my hand out again, unscathed and not even particularly damp.

Yet I wore a chain mail glove just to change the water dish of certain feisty parrots. I still have the scar from trying to bottle feed a baby boar. When a keeper offered to show me the proper technique for putting one’s arm into the mouth of a hippopotamus so that it won’t be torn off, I listened carefully—straight on, as if reaching for the uvula—but declined the practice session. I was learning enough as it was.

I learned, for instance, that the viscera of a Thompson’s gazelle will splash out if you run a knife down its abdomen; that the first incision of an autopsy is like unzipping a piece of luggage. Not that you’d set down a suitcase with its legs in the air, or have a suitcase packed with viscera in the first place, every color of red and purple and gray spilling, pouring, washing across a metal table top.

The vet I was with rummaged through the organs, poked at a bowel obstruction—the presumed cause of death—and then he cut the tube at the throat, the tube at the anus, and pulled the whole vital mess into a bucket. He made some notes.

We hosed out the inside. We pulled the body down off the table and I couldn’t help but notice that the gazelle looked fine; the short white hair on its belly and between its legs stained a little pink from the blood, but fine. It was hollow now but its shape hadn’t changed at all; if you supported the head a little, it could still be made to stand.

I imagined the gazelle standing in the swan dumpster, leaning against a metal side, maybe a horn hooked over the edge and its hooves pinching the mixture of needles and rinds, and I asked, “What are you going to do with it? What happens to it now?” The vet had curly hair and thick glasses that distorted his eyes, made them big and wobbly. He looked at me, his eyes googling, and answered with as few words as possible.

“Al museo.”

The zoo, it turned out, had a museum. But since the museum was not directly related to my duties there, to the cages I cleaned or the fauna I fed or any of the sundry ways I assisted the vets, I had managed to work a full two months at the zoo without ever realizing there was a museum right in the middle of it.

The museum was small and windowless, secluded and cave-like. Outside it was announced by the smallest of signs, and inside it was just a little loop path with low ceilings flanked by dioramas. It was marvelous. For a few feet you were in the arctic, then it was a savannah, the prairie, a rainforest, the jungle, a marsh—habitat after habitat elaborately painted and then textured with real sand, dried grasses, bristling moss. Even once I had discovered it, the museum felt like a secret. I could never remember its hours or how to get to it or the names of any of the gracious and hip twenty-somethings who staffed it. When I wanted to return, it took no small amount of luck to find my way back.

There wasn’t a sign or a plaque or a memorial to say so, but all the animals in the museum had died in the zoo. While the living animals of the zoo had enclosures of concrete and iron bars, the museum’s specimens were posed in painstaking reconstructions of their native habitats. Animals alive in the zoo were prone to inactivity or nervous tics or self-destructive behavior; animals in the zoo were bored. Animals in the museum, however, seemed singularly engaged, forever stalking or leaping or flapping or grazing. Yes, their habitats were lush in the museum, and the animals seemed to thrive. Except, of course, their glass eyes couldn’t see the paradise. Their plastic tongues never tasted a thing.

Sometimes in the museum I thought about tombs, about the elaborate ways we send off the dead, about the rewards we think might await us after a life of hardship and suffering and deprivation. What a curious inversion this museum was: the most authentic habitat in the whole zoo and it was available only to the carcasses. And yet how familiar the promise: to have in death what they never had in life.

For the most part, zoo animals don’t come from the wild anymore. They come from zoos. A baby born in a zoo dies in that zoo or maybe gets traded to another zoo for something else and dies there. If it matures and breeds, it will breed in a zoo, almost certainly issuing its offspring into captivity. So why replicate a place that creature has never seen, will never see? At some point a giraffe stops being native to the savannah and starts being native to its zoo. It happens in a generation. So that’s 25 years for a tapir. Maybe 15 for a penguin. 45 for a hippopotamus. Just 9 for a kangaroo.

I tried to think of the Santiago Zoo as, in a way, honest. Habitats are remarkably complex, whole interlocking multi-species ecosystems, governed by more relationships than we can hope to mimic. Any environment the zoo could mock up would be to some degree false, to some extent lacking. So they made no pretense of nature, no illusion of the wild: they had animals in cages and that was it. Just animals in cages. And maybe a tree if you were lucky, but a tree that grew in Chile, not wherever the monkey climbing it would have come from. And, in a way, maybe that was honest, too.

I liked the phase “jardín zoológico” to mean “zoo,” the way the word “garden” suggested both nature and its controlled, wholly unnatural cultivation. But then again, the word was too pretty. It didn’t address the brown bear kept in isolation, rescued from the circus, underweight, his fur worn away at the harness spots. It didn’t explain the camel that foamed at the mouth, foamed like sudsy brushes at the car wash, sudden and thick and dripping the moment a visitor walked into its pen. It wasn’t even rationale for the albino peacock, with its shivering tail of lace, sequestered from the others in its own concrete cage as if you might miss it in a sea of blue. No, garden was the wrong word. A row of azaleas never seemed grotesque.

The flamingos didn’t have a particularly sizeable enclosure. Indeed, most of their space was overhead. Really, just room enough for a short flight into a drape of netting—nothing big—but it worried the keepers. Zoo inhabitants were known to escape, after all, or at least they did at that zoo, maybe once or twice a year. And not just did birds escape, but a tiger once, and a chimpanzee who roamed the zoo for hours before realizing his cagemate couldn’t scale the wall to follow him, and so sat on the lip of the enclosure calling to her, singing for half an hour before he finally gave up and slid back down the embankment to be with her.

Birds, on the other hand, tend not to come back. They are not so sentimental. Nor, I suppose, are their keepers.

The solution is simple mechanics: you clip a tendon in a bird’s wing and that bird can no longer fly. Visually, the specimen appears intact. Sure, it can’t fly, can’t perform the hallmark act of its class, but that doesn’t matter, not really, not if there was never space enough in the zoo to practice a proper flight anyway—and of course there was never that much space. But the procedure isn’t failsafe. Sometimes the tendons grow back, mend, forgive the violence done to them and the bird is once more, so very literally, a flight risk. One could instead just secure the cage, make it harder to get out, but ceilings, covers, overhangs of any stripe look bad. They draw attention to the cage. No, better to keep the cages open on top, to present the illusion of freedom, of nature, and let the birds and their visitors see nothing but unfettered sky above the creatures born to climb it. Better, then, to alter the bird than the environment; better to lose the limb.

Not the whole wing, mind you, just an amputation at the elbow: a snap, the nick of a scalpel, the whole flock done in an afternoon. The asymmetry was odd when they woke and stretched and flapped a bit. The altered wing made a different noise. But with the span folded back up, both wings tucked together in the usual way, it could be easy to miss what wasn’t there.

We always took from the left wing, open like a fan, the long edge of flight feathers straight and dark and then severed at the joint. We left a pile of half-wings. I remember the shading of the feathers. And I remember the white dust of mites crawling out slowly, later, having realized the wing was dead.

Even the things a zoo doesn’t want it still sometimes has to keep.

African elephants aren’t just mean, the keepers told me, son malos. They are bad. Not merely wicked, but malicious. Globally, the keepers told me, African elephants cause more zookeeper deaths each year than any other animal. Not to be confused with Asian elephants, which are smaller and better tempered, African elephants, the keepers said, are bad in a way that suggests evil.

In a place where I could traipse around tiger pens, pet bears through the bars on their cages, and take my pick of holding down the 600-pound wild boars in need of vaccination or plunging a needle into all that hogflesh, the one area of the zoo where I was not allowed was with the elephants. The closest I came was visiting the vet whose round office sat like a crow’s nest over the embankment of the elephant pen. The path to the office door was a bridge narrow as a footpath, and which reminded me of walking a plank.

Sometimes the elephants wedged up under the railing along the path, the ends of their trunks waving like sock puppets, gingerly feeling out what they couldn’t see. Once, I reached out to the searching trunk and was startled that its skin was abrasive, rough like concrete and sprouting fine dark hairs that felt like wire bristles. The trunk reached back, in liquid movements coiling around my wrist. They were the calculations of a constrictor and I could imagine the tug that would pull me over the railing, even as I jerked my hand up to my chest and rushed to the door.

The last time an elephant died at the Santiago Zoo, the staff had been not just relieved, but downright happy. They felt safer. They felt good. They vowed never to get another African elephant and went home smiling. But what could they say when the ambassador of an elephant-producing African country read the sad news and sent them a new one? Sent them two, in fact. What could they do but say thanks and order new feed and prepare to wait out another 60-year life?

It was no consolation to the elephant keepers that old age itself isn’t especially natural. A swan in the wild, for instance, is lucky to make it past age seven, but protected they’ll live more like 20 years—and some will make it to 50. It’s as if with enough control, enough care, a thing could last forever. That’s not to say captivity is without its drawbacks—the zoo had no shortage of neurotic parrots rubbing their feathers off or agitated chimpanzees plucking their shoulders bald. But if the creatures in zoos can survive the stress of boredom, it’s likely they’ll live to endure it a very long time.

The zookeepers, I came to notice, were all men, all middle-aged, all native to Chile. As a group they were what you might call hearty: strong but not necessarily in shape. They liked working with their hands. They were, as a group, fond of jokes and proud of their work and affectionate about their animals. Some kept small collections of feathers or whiskers or quills. They liked working outside. They said they liked the freedom.

The job of zookeeper was often passed down in families, father to son, to men who hadn’t necessarily finished high school but were nonetheless hired into exotic animal care in the event that their fathers retired or, as seemed more common, passed away. The job was routine, heavy, a steady schedule of cleanings and feedings and calling the vet when something looked off. Maybe, if the mother guanaco was suffering complications that year, you delivered its cria in the spring, but mostly you attended to the ritual cycles of food and water and waste. There were no promotions. It was a job you got and you kept until you could do it no longer.

It was, I knew, a job I could never get. Sure, I could watch. I could help. But I wasn’t heir to a line, and the zoo depended on a certain stasis, a promise of things always the same, always like this. Every day the guys in the bodega cut up the same kind of fish for the fish-eaters, the same kind of meat for the meat-eaters, the same four kinds of fruit for the fruit-eaters, and then tossed the scrap into the same big heap. It didn’t matter which region, which climate, which continent the fruit or the meat or the eater originally came from. Every day the keepers scooped the food into buckets and fed their beasts. The only thing that changed was that one day, my work done, I stopped going up the hill and it all went on without me.

Of course it did. And of course it has. And, of course, it will. The days count out years and the sons replace the fathers and it all goes on just as before. The cages, in particular—the cages never change. The cages look the same to the sons as they did to the fathers, the same to this generation as they will to the next. Impossible to see from the base of the hill, and a speck in the landscape from the summit.