The Universal Zoo Tour Guide for Parents of Excessively Curious Children

(curated from the words of Werner Herzog and Charles Siebert[1])

-- compiled and edited by Steven Church

Welcome: Hello, Children and welcome to the Universal Zoo Tour Guide for Parents of Excessively Curious Children.

Here at (insert name of local zoo), it’s important that we begin with a baseline understanding of some rules. These tips and guidelines are for your safety and the animals’. First of all, it’s important to remember that the common denominator of the Universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder. And it’s important to keep your hands, fingers, and toes outside the cages at all times. It’s also important to remember not to taunt the animals or tap the glass. Finally, we ask you to realize that with our new habitats, we are trying to conceal from ourselves the zoo as living evidence of our natural antagonism toward nature; the zoo as manifestation of the fact that our slow, fitful progress toward understanding the animals has always been coterminus with conquering and containing them. We also ask you to realize that the water features in animal habitats are not swimming pools. None of the animals you will see do, in fact, “just need a hug.” We hope you will find it far less depressing to proceed, as one did in an old zoo, from the assumption of the animals' sadness in captivity than to have to constantly infer the happiness we've supposedly afforded them in our new pretend versions of their rightful homes. The former premise, at least, seems less of a lie about what a zoo is. The old city zoo was designed, as a visit to an art museum is, to invite our immersion in the works and have us be edified by them in some way.

The Petting Zoo:

When visiting the Petting Zoo, please remember, children, that if you look into the eyes of a chicken, you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in the world. The goose, also, is a very troublesome animal; and to strangle a goat, that makes you feel really alive. Goat strangling, of course, is not permitted at most petting zoos. Please remember this. Please also remember to wash your hands after visiting the petting zoo.

The Reptile House:

Hello, Children and welcome to the reptile house, one of the few remaining “houses” in your contemporary zoo. Before we begin, let me remind you that life on our planet has been a constant series of cataclysmic events, and we are more suitable for extinction than a trilobite or a reptile. The universe is monstrously indifferent to the presence of man. So we will vanish. There's no doubt in my heart. But not before we press our noses against the glass and make faces at the bearded dragon or the tomato frog; not before, dear children, the Komodo dragon will sit there smelling us with his tongue, dreaming his lizard dreams, and the Madagascar hissing cockroach will scream silently behind the glass, envious of our large brains and advanced language skills.

The Penguin Habitat:

Is there such a thing as insanity among penguins? It’s hard to say for sure, kids. You might find yourself standing in front of the penguin exhibit wondering the same thing. After a few minutes pass then one penguin-the smallest and youngest, it looks to you-decides to make a move. Working himself free of the others, he makes his way slowly over to the door and, pokes his head around while holding the rest of himself back-two wings like little elbows lifting slightly for balance-peeked into the darkness and took in a narrow hallway lined with mops, buckets, and brooms, and the tall shadow of the keeper receding, and a light clinking of his keys. And you might begin to attach all sorts of human emotions to this penguin, the sorts of feelings you have some days working at your desk, emotions that in their most extreme manifestation might look a bit like insanity. But please do not let this temper your enjoyment of the zoo’s charming penguin troop.

The Aviary:

Dear Children, I hesitate to point out that the trees here are in misery and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing. They just screech in pain. But see how many different birds you can find and identify. Check them off on your list. Try to ignore their pain and misery.  

African Savannah and Snack Pavilion:

The African Savannah is a wide-open stretch of tree-dotted grassy plain with lions, gazelles, and peacocks. Imagine the newfound happiness of the lions, placed on a moated island of grass in sight of-but ever at a distance from-the gazelles, their natural prey. Imagine yourself, feeling happy and content as you recline in the faux thatched snack hut eating a personal pizza and a fruit punch served in a plastic bottle shaped like an orange giraffe or a purple monkey. Imagine that you can see elephants in the distance.

The Rhino Habitat (Currently Out of Order):

Unfortunately, children, Rudy the Rhinocerous and the others are gone now, and with them a way of looking, literally and figuratively, at animals. They've passed so quickly from being curiosities to being scattered sympathies; from being the captive representatives in crude cages of an extant, flourishing wilderness to being the living memories of themselves in our artful re-creations of a vastly diminished one. But please note that the diminishments evidenced by our artful re-creations are also non-toxic, eco-friendly, and child-safe, composed of high-tech polymers and plastics that will never deteriorate or break down. These habitats will, contrary to natural habitats, NEVER disappear. They are perpetual and perfect.

The Polar Bear Pool:

At this point in the tour we will seek out not the coldest pool but the pool of the coldest animal, the animal that stands for coldness—the polar bear. Please remember, however, that the polar bear’s pool is not open for public swimming. Please also remember that polar bears are one of the few apex predators known to hunt humans. You have to get used to the bear behind you. And if you’d like, this is often a good place for a selfie with the polar bear photobombing you in the background.

The Seal and Sea Lion Pool:

OK, children, we’ve now come to one of the most popular attractions at the zoo, the sea lion pool. Whereas the old pool on this same spot had brought delight to eighty-seven years' worth of past zoogoers, the present pool is modeled after an actual seal rookery found on the northern coast of California, thus securing the comfort and delight of the seals here as well as our own. We hope sincerely that you feel the delight as the seals and sea lions bark and flip, performing extravagant tricks for fish.

The Grizzly Bear Habitat:

Though the grizzly bears may look cuddly and cute, almost human in a way, what may haunt you, children, is that in all the faces of all the bears, you will discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. You will see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. There is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food and in your presence outside their habitat. And while we watch the bears in their joys of being, in their grace and ferociousness, a thought becomes more and more clear. That it is not so much a look at wild nature, as it is an insight into ourselves, our nature. Take this moment, children, to think about your own nature. Somehow, the strangely affecting dynamic of our day at the old city zoo is that while it begins with us standing starkly, face to face, with an animal, it always seems to end with us confronting some slightly confining truth about ourselves. People visit zoos, I think, to have some telling turn with the wild's otherworldliness; to look, on the most basic level, at ways we didn't end up being-at all the shapes that a nonreflective will can take. We hope you’ve enjoyed the view and all the shapes before you today, children. Thank you for visiting today and we hope you have a safe drive home.




[1] Most of what is printed here, with some (hopefully) obvious exceptions are either quotes from Werner Herzog or from the writer, Charles Siebert and his 1991 Harper’s Magazine essay, “Where Have All the Animals Gone: The Lamentable Extinction of Zoos.” The Herzog quotes are readily available through quote search engines, interviews, and in transcripts of his film, Grizzly Man. I’ve simply curated, compiled, and edited them together to create the text for a zoo tour.