Patrick Lawler teaches at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse.

The Animals We Once Prayed To

What I liked about Marlin Perkins was his avuncular gentleness even as he subdued a hippo with a tranquilizer gun. I believed he cared immensely. You knew eventually, if he lived long enough, everything would be saved. Everything would be secure in his zoo. Queen Hapshetsut of Egypt established the first zoo. After ousting her husband, the Queen filled her garden with exotic animals, sending her subjects on animal-collecting exhibitions to bring back monkeys, leopards, birds, giraffes, greyhounds.






When I see


my wife deliciously


stroking the cat,


I get nervous.






As I'm writing this, the Miss America Pageant is on in the background the way it was when I was growing up. As a child I only went to the zoo once. The feeling of exhilaration subsided into nausea. Instead of august animals, I saw cages with filthy elephants, depressed lions, hyperactive monkeys. It was like visiting a hospice. It was like walking into a ward of TB patients.






It was like


looking into the punctuation


eyes of heroin addicts.








The bear, puffy, stoical, tried to ignore us, imagining the Chinese Parks of Intelligence. The traveling menageries of London. The garden-zoos. The bloody amphitheaters of Rome. I'm not really certain why we have this urge to capture and display. Maybe we want everything to look like us.






In the background the contestants

for Miss America

are talking about their habitat.

They are giving examples

of their mating rituals.

They are discussing

their place in the food chain.






Sometimes I think watching Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom spoiled me for real life. I expected too much from my encounters with the creatures of the earth. Mr. P. and Jim (who always did all the tough work) would hop in a Land Rover and go chasing a wildebeest or a leopard around a savanna. Eventually, after some good action shots, they would tranquilize and cage the animal, sending it off to be studied in a laboratory, where, if all went well, it would reproduce.







Everything seemed perfect.





Marlin sensed his place in history.










Cosimo de Medici, in the 14th century, tried to revive the amphitheater. After parading the animals through the streets, he released them into the Roman blood-theater. The animals were so exhausted they fell asleep. The tigers curled under their paws, the rhinoceros snored. It looked as if Marlin Perkins had inoculated them, tagged them, and left them snoozing.






On Wild Kingdom

everything was dying.

Suppose this is really true.

Suppose everything is leaving us.

The Walruses wobble off the Alaskan cliffs

at Maggie Beach. The whales and caribou

committing suicide. Maybe the only thing

left to do is try to collect what we have destroyed.


Maybe the animals the turbaned birds,

the rubber seals, the hair ribbon snakes

are saying: We've had it.






No one knows why things happen. Maybe the only thing left to do is become

forensic experts sifting the earth for evidence of our existence: a pink swimsuit, an evening gown, a false smile. I'm a little ashamed to say this, but I'm paying more attention to the talent portion of the pageant than I expected I would. Miss Kansas is singing an opera.






Miss Alabama is tap dancing



as if she is trying



to get something off her.







On one of the episodes of Wild Kingdom (in one of the rare ones when Mr. Perkins actually does something), Marlin is in ankle deep water with a python when it begins coiling itself around him. Jim comes to help as he always does (this is what I like about Jim), but he also becomes entangled. Eventually they get away, but for a moment, a brief moment, it seems they are doomed, trapped in some colossal debate between body and mind. It makes for great drama as the snake, like a huge muscle, twists itself around their bodies Jim and Marlin connected forever, or so it seemed.






And, in spite


of my fear

of snakes, I began routing


for the python.







I no longer fear snakes, but one recent episode in my life has caused me to reevaluate my certainty that we can ever totally overcome our fears. I was in the Museum of Science and Technology when Mary, a friend, a poet, and employee of the center, placed Elizabeth, a python, around my neck. At first, I felt comfortable; then its head began to take an interest in my face. It was all I could do to hold it back. I gripped it for all I was worth.






Mary said:





What are you doing?


You're hurting her. You're holding her too tightly.





I felt bad, but I couldn't let go. The snake was headed toward my face. When the snake was removed, she said that I was perfectly safe. She said that there had been only one recent incident where Elizabeth had bitten the nose of an educational presenter but nothing like that had ever happened before.





In a Copenhagen zoo, a new

Homo Sapiens exhibit features

a Danish couple living in an apartment

between the zoo's lemur and monkey cages.


Ipolito de Medici maintained

a human zoo containing Africans, Indians,

Tartans, Moors, and Turks.





I wonder if he would have been interested in the Miss America pageant. A magnificent specimen from every state. Regis Philbin asks the five finalists questions about who they are, about what they intend to do. Their answers seem trite but strangely genuine. Like Regis, himself.







"We sit in front of our screens, our TVs.

our computers, safe and sterile," paralyzed


by the "complexities of our lives," by our own

isolation when all around us is "vibrant with


connection." The animals we once prayed to

are absent from our lives.


The python moving toward our faces,

could have been a vine of energy. Maybe one day


I will loosen my grip. Maybe one day I'll say:

OK, I'm yours.













Before Montezuma's great zoo was destroyed by Cortez, the starving Incas had begun to eat the animals. We are starving in another way, but the consequences are the same. It's tiara time as they crown Miss Kansas the new Miss America. I hope her reign will be long and uneventful like the life of Regis Philbin.






I remember seeing

pictures of the Sarajevo

Beauty Contest.

The contestants

with shrapnel scars

from war, with bullet

wounds, with missing

limbs, carried a banner

that said: Do Not Kill Us.






I should have paid more attention to the commercials on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. It is as if we are in this parade moving toward some kind of virtual apocalyptic slaughter. If we are lucky, when we arrive at this terrible destination, we will fall deeply asleep.










We need Marlin Perkins to save us. With his Land Rover and his faithful Jim, he will track us down in our living rooms. He will drug us, tag us, study us, relocate us. We'll wind up in the rain forests, the savannas, the Alaskan cliffs overlooking the sea, the tundra, the mountains. If all goes well, we will reproduce.



But, first, we will topple



into our screens,


a dart in our thighs,


our mouths barely capable

of moving. Our bodies, numb and floppy,

we lift our faces and look into the sad,






exhausted eyes of Marlin.

Slowly and with great




difficulty, we say: Do not kill us.


But we really want to say much more.