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Eyeing impacts of the human animal

Alan Braunholtz

We perceive ourselves as physically large creatures partly because we stand way up on two legs and mistake height for size. We also tend to only let small animals live around us. Meeting a horse for the first time is a bit of a shock; they’re really big!

A combination of the mundane task of laundry and a rare trip to the Denver Zoo brought this home a few weeks ago. Folding Gayle’s cycling jerseys out of the dryer and it’s suddenly apparent how small she is. Mine aren’t much bigger. At the zoo, animals that barely reach the waist possess cycle-jersey-busting bulk to spare.

The Denver Zoo is a really good zoo with spacious enclosures, hidden walls, moats and lots of glass panes for some tingling close views. A lion isn’t that tall, but when eyeing you from a few feet on the other side of some hopefully strong glass, height doesn’t seem to matter. They looked indifferent enough that Gayle ran past one to see if it could see through the glass and/or cared. It could and did, moving with such a liquid power of predatory intent that she froze mid-stride before giggling with relief; Score psych 1 to the lion!



A sinuous pacing tiger almost flowed around its park and uncannily always ended up padding straight at us, wherever we stood behind the glass wall in the darkened viewing room. Head-on, an approaching tiger reminds one of a shark, streamlined with nothing wider than its stable head, it slinks in a smooth wave that belies its pace. I’d hate to see one in dense brush but can imagine they’re distressingly fast.

There are two families of lowland gorillas at present. One’s visiting from Los Angeles as their exhibit gets rebuilt. Both families have young babies, and 30 minutes watching a gorilla family convinces me not only of our common ancestry but the nonsense of trying to draw a sharp line between animals and humans in terms of emotions and pain. We are animals, albeit one with a brain that scares a tiger more than his claws and teeth scare us. We need very defensible reasons for inflicting suffering on creatures that have the ability to suffer.



Gorillas seem to be much more humane in their treatment of each other than humans can be with each other.

The sunny weather after an early snow had most of the animals out and bouncing around. A couple of grizzly bears wrestled like overgrown playful dogs ” and looked as cute. Then a roar exposed a mouth full of sharp teeth to remind me that they’re not really cute ” but wild beasts.

We have a hard time accepting the wild for what it is. The fuzzy-thinking overly sentimental of us want to cuddle grizzly bears; they’ll feel our love and all will be well. The film “The Grizzly Man” is a fascinating exploration of how powerful this delusional thinking can be.



The other reaction to wild things is to kill them. This is at least reality based and safer. Both come from a desire to control or subjugate the wild; something which by definition isn’t in our control.

In “The Grizzly Man,” an Alaskan native dismissed attempts to camp with grizzlies as close to sacrilege: an action that shows no respect for the power and spirit of the bear. His people took great pride in the bears that lived on their land and their ability to coexist based on knowledge, respect and force when needed.

After the zoo, I have a lot of respect for the people in Africa and Asia who have lived alongside lions and tigers. I’m guessing they also take pride and some identity from their “walking with lions” skills. Maybe similar to the way New Yorkers boast of their street smarts and Los Angelinos of their “driving with cars” excellence.

The sad part of any zoo is the information that many of these animals are threatened, usually because of habitat loss ” though sometimes greed, ignorance and poaching will do it. The bigger the animal, the more wild space they need and the greater our threat to them as our population grows.

Human population growth isn’t the buzzword it was in the 1960s, but it’s still going to be a huge problem for us. For a small animal, we have a large and growing ecological footprint. We’re consuming (and wasting) more and more stuff, and our population keeps growing. Combine the two and it doesn’t bode well for many of the creatures that share the planet with us or the future generations of the predominantly Third World poor condemned to live in hunger and poverty.

One of religion’s major disfavors to the earth is its continued opposition to birth and population control. The major rationale behind all the moral posturing is that each religion wants to be the biggest, and a good way to achieve this is for your faithful to have more babies than anyone else.

Human brains are truly phenomenal organs, much more so than anything I saw in the zoo, and throughout history we’ve used them to control the environment to benefit our population. Now it’d probably be better for us if we controlled our population to benefit the environment we depend on and enjoy so much.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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