The other day my job as a photojournalist took me to the National Zoo. I always look forward to the days when the hum-drum stories of fire and death are interrupted by a morning spent doing anything else. We were there for the introduction of two new tiger cubs, so the cute factor was very high and filled you with warm and fuzzy feelings. Between the time our morning live shots ended and the event started I had time to take a walk around and visit the other animals. I enjoyed my reprieve but something was nagging me, something that I wasn’t able to articulate until hours later.
The zoo felt small. Don’t worry, I’m not going to start bashing zoos. I think they, especially ones like the National Zoo in Washington, DC, serve a great purpose. The people who don’t like zoos often complain about caging wild animals. While I get the point they are trying to make, a zoo is so much more.
The large zoos and the research they conduct on animals, the breeding programs they run, have helped many species come back from the brink. The animals serve as ambassadors, too. When you bring a child to the zoo they get to see a zebra, a monkey, a panda and dozens of others eat and play and interact with their mates and offspring. The animal is no longer an abstract thing in a picture book or on television, it is alive endowed with its own personality. A connection is made and as these children grow they’re more likely to take an interest in the environment around them (and across the world) and be inspired to do something to protect our animal friends.
But expounding on the virtues of zoos isn’t the point of this post. I said the zoo felt small and I later realized why: Africa. The safari we took last March did what all good travel is supposed to do, it changed my perspective. As I visited the elephants in their enclosure I saw two of them. When we were on the savanna we saw dozens and dozens of them in large family groups. In Africa, I noticed that despite being the largest animal around, even they could look small. Who would have ever thought an elephant could look small?
Back at the zoo, I went to visit the lions and felt disappointed at the distance between us. We were surrounded by lions at some points in Africa, so close we could reach out and touch them if we had been dumb enough. We looked out the windows of our truck and see their beautiful faces. The light scars from past scuffles, the pink of their tongues, and their golden eyes. You could look into their large gold eyes from five feet away and see a mind, a soul staring back at you. We made truly personal connections with these amazing creatures.
My perspective has changed, giving one of my favorite places in Washington a different feel. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, it’s a reminder that the simple act of travel changes you in ways you may not realize.