"The time has come
The time is now
Just go, go, go
I don't care how."
--from "Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!" by Dr. Seuss
I am standing by the Northern Shores exhibit at the Denver Zoo, watching media stars Klondike and Snow and thinking: Christ on a crutch, talk about a dysfunctional family.
Klondike and Snow's mother, Ulu, who abandoned them at birth and probably would have eaten them had the bears lived in the wild, stands in her compound, swinging her head repetitively like an autistic child at a subpar daycare center. Next door, Klondike and Snow lie on a cement slab, poolside, sucking on each other's nipples. The throng of human observers leans forward.
"See?" someone says. "They're still exhibiting nursing behavior!"
"Awwwww," say the moms and dads and kids, as the people in the row behind them try to catch a glimpse. It may be ten minutes before they actually get a look at the nine-month-old cubs, but in the meantime, everyone waits patiently in line.
Finally, a tall, heavyset man, red in the face from the heat, emerges into the front row. This is the moment he's been waiting for. He holds up a stuffed Klondike, pressing it against the plate-glass window. The real Klondike spots it immediately, detaches himself from his sister's nipple and attacks, his brand-new claws skittering against the glass.
Approximately twenty yards away, zookeeper Jim Blankenship is performing his daily show, in which a handful of sea lions and harbor seals eat fish, blow kisses, bark commentary and literally jump through hoops. The seals look up at him with limpid eyes, executing perfect rolls. The sea lions, "who are yang to the seals' yin," Blankenship says, jockey for position on artificial rock platforms, sitting grandly with their noses in the air, then slithering effortlessly through the water back to their keeper, barking at him in what sound like complete sentences. Raw fish fly through the air. I love this exhibit, especially now, when it's practically empty--thanks to Klondike and Snow.
Next door is the river otter, whose antics also are largely ignored. What a life! This guy seems to spend his whole day running through a personal woodland or performing brilliant, watery tricks. He is so likable and yet so hip that when my daughter asks me the ultimate commercial question--"Mom, can I have a shirt of him?"--I acquiesce. We walk over to the gift shop--threading through Klondike and Snow crowds for the second time--in search of a shirt picturing the otter.
Ha. This store is loaded for bear, and I don't mean bears of color. White supremacy reigns. You can buy Klondike and Snow stuffed in umpteen sizes, in sportswear and party accoutrements (see sidebar, right). We find one very small stuffed otter selling for $4.95. The shop even shortchanges Emma, the beautiful and slightly bewildered-looking baby hippopotamus who was born August 8. Although hippo paraphernalia would seem a sure crowd-pleaser, the ratio of Emma souvenirs to bear essentials is something like 1 to 25.
Even though Klondike and Snow are scheduled to be shipped off to Florida any week now, where they will be a featured attraction at Orlando's Sea World, the polar bears' popularity shows no signs of abating. Last week Klondike and Snow supporters--two of them in bear suits--ventured into City Hall, where they presented Deputy Mayor Fidel "Butch" Montoya, elevated from his public-safety job in Wellington Webb's absence, with petitions signed by 10,000 people demanding that the bears stay in Denver. How can we sit by and let the zoo send them to Florida? they whined. After all, it was the zoo, aided and abetted by the media--particularly Channel 4, which sells its own Klondike and Snow videotape and has already contracted with an Orlando family to keep us posted on the bears' doings--that "made us love them."
I view this campaign with alarm, having just finished reading a novel in which adult polar bears get together in Churchill, Alaska, and lay waste to everything they come across, including three human explorers, two mattresses and one entire Land Rover, antifreeze and all. The novel is based on true accounts. For most of their lives, it would appear, polar bears are lone and majestic, not cute and cuddly. And that phase is quickly melting away for Klondike and Snow.
But fans are not deterred by these bear facts. One suggests an investigation into the zoo's "dirty little tactics." Another sees printing "Save Our Bears" bumper stickers as a public duty. And would it be too extravagant to turn over one entire used airport to a pair of polar cubs? Apparently not, because that's what the Zoo Two: Save Our Bears Foundation wants for Stapleton.
"Oh, you mean the SOBs, as in Save Our Bears," says zoo director Clayton Freiheit, who has had one long, hot summer of it, what with dealing with all the protest calls and Mayor Wellington Webb insisting that he "carefully consider every alternative" to sending the bears away. In the zoo's hundred-year history--it celebrates its centennial next year--there has never been such controversy. There have never been stars like Klondike and Snow, either.
"Yeah, well what about bears who aren't Klondike and Snow?" I ask. "How do they feel about this? And what about the sea lions? Aren't they insulted? Who's shooting videotape of the river otter? Who's got the franchise for Emma commuter mugs?"
"I see where you're coming from," Freiheit says, though he sounds a little mystified. He turns me over to his publicity director, Angela Baier, whose office contains the most elaborate hamster cage I have ever seen, as well as a live hamster, shelves of plastic animal action figures (hippopotamus theme predominant!) and a book on wolves written in French. For the past year, Baier has handled the media blitz surrounding Klondike and Snow, the first polar bears hand-raised in captivity since 1978.
"It's not any fun, I'll tell you," Baier confides. "How can they doubt our motives? We're doing what's best for the bears. As a business decision, it's a poor one. We've made some money off them, about $200,000, which is not even close to what the rumors say. And sure, we've all fallen in love with them. But this is like sending a kid off to college. It's time for them to go. We're maxed out on polar bears."
Since we both know she has to, Baier launches into the zoo's official (and wildly unpopular) explanation for why the bears must go. There's not enough room for them. Sea World has a much better facility. Not to mention "genetic purity. Ninety-nine percent of zoo animals come from other accredited zoos," she points out. "The last thing you want is for any one group of animals to become one big family." Inbred, in other words. "Before we breed an animal, we generally know of a home for them somewhere else," Baier says.
And with polar bears, she adds, it's particularly important that they get to that new home soon--because the genetic design that calls for them to be solitary hunters also gives them the potential to become aggressive and hostile. With each other. "In the wild," Baier points out, "Klondike and Snow would not stay together."
But then, they probably won't at Sea World, either. The part of Northern Shores where Klondike and Snow live now, Baier says, was designed to be nothing more elaborate than a temporary cubbing den--a sort of nursery.
"You mean more cute bears might end up there and then have to be moved?" I ask.
"Yes," Baier says, sounding exhausted at the prospect.
"What's with Ulu and the head-swinging?"
"That may not have been Ulu," she says. "Olaf lives there, too, and they rotate in and out. But head-swinging is not a good behavior. You know," she adds, "we get letters wanting us to send Ulu away because she's a bad mom, supposedly, even though she did what any polar bear would do in the wild. Well, Ulu was small once, too. We have a video of her and the other bears when they were little, all sitting on a rock. They were all adorable. How quickly people forget. We can't be sucked into that look-how-cute-they-are thing. Not when these bears can live to be 35 years old."
"Do you have any other potential media stars around the place?" I ask.
"Oh, yeah!" Baier says, brightening considerably. "Boy! Any of them!"
I am now sitting in an official zoo golf cart watching Michael Kinsey, curator of mammals, strike his GQ pose. "You have to practice this stuff," he tells me. "You never know when the media will show up. How's this?" he asks, lowering his chin. "GQ? Or is it more Sears?"
After working as a high school science teacher, May D&F shoe salesman and all-male-revue dancer, Kinsey has been at the zoo for 22 years, during which time his private language and radical opinions have become such a fixture that they are not the least bit remarkable. While ordering lunch at the zoo cafeteria, for instance, he has been known to state that he never eats anything with a face. "It's impossible to reconcile conservationism with the rampant destruction of the planet, part of which is caused by the extremely high-protein animals," he says, given the chance. Kinsey rides his bike to work year-round and spent only $36 on gas this entire summer, "which makes me sound holier-than-thou," he says, "and, of course, I am."
The sound of Kinsey's voice propels us through the zoo. "To be a keeper is a fascinating thing," he says. "The work is dusty and sweaty and yet like being on recess all the time, which is the best part of school. Most curators, if they had to go backward, would be keepers again.
"Oh, these are neat guys," he says, pulling up next to the warthogs. "This guy, Zig--well, someday I'll have to tell you what his parents did, but I can't discuss it in front of him. He has a brother named Zag, I can tell you that."
He can also tell me that he'd much rather talk about animals than humans. "You don't want me to get talking about people," he says. "People are meaningless in my scheme of things."
Over the next half hour, Kinsey joins the sea lions to rescue a hat that a child has dropped into their pool, encourages a pair of rhinos to "do a little rough courtship," alerts female zoo patrons to the presence of a very good-looking zoo construction worker he calls Fabio, worries whether a clutch of peacock babies will have fattened up sufficiently by fall and joins Jim Blankenship backstage at the harbor seal exhibit to survey the progress of a five-month-old male known as Mac.
"Short for Immaculate Conception," Kinsey says. "Go ahead," he says to Blankenship. "Explain how that seal opened that gate when we weren't supposed to be breeding these guys at all."
Mac rolls in place in a small holding tank, after having been force-fed a lunch of raw fish instead of the seal breast milk he would have preferred. Kinsey climbs into the empty tank next to him and attempts to stare him down. "You little butterball," he says. Mac stares back at him with what looks like affection--but only if you attribute human emotions to animals. "I don't," Kinsey says, "but I'm not that interested in people words, anyway. For instance, you call polar bears mean"--I did--"but there are no mean animals. What they are is ferocious and aggressive in their hunting style. In the wild they might need to stalk a seal for three or four days, and then, if they miss, they could die. They'd better be good hunters."
But not necessarily good guys. Kinsey doesn't even attempt to analyze the bears' personality. "That's anthropomorphism," he says. "I don't do it, but it's okay. Just don't be anthropocentric. Just because you're human, the world doesn't revolve around you. You've heard it before," he adds. "Now listen to it."
We are now approaching Bear Mountain, the oldest open-moated bear exhibit in the United States--"and still state-of-the-art," Kinsey says proudly. On a ledge of artificial rock, with a waterfall pouring down behind, an enormously fat Asian bear sits Buddha-like, contemplating a tree branch. "We have three of these," Kinsey says. "They came from Italy, and at first there was a language barrier, because they only spoke Bear Italian."
Only three people are hanging over the rail at the Asian-bear exhibit--as opposed to the Klondike and Snow crush--but their ears perk up at this bit of linguistic information. "Really," Kinsey tells them. "Also, they're endangered, poached-out out of an insatiable need for bear parts. It's awful, awful."
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SHOW ME HOW
A staff of keepers makes life interesting for this one, currently unendangered bear by stashing honey and a sort of omnivore kibble all over the exhibit, in cracks and crevices, so that he will have to forage for his food. "After that," Kinsey tells me, "he plops down in the sun, just like a bear in the wild."
A similar schedule is enjoyed by Hum, Dumbface and Fatmouth, the neighboring grizzly bears. Splashing in their pool or catching rays, they seem harmless, perhaps even cute. But appearances can be deceiving, says Rick Ball, the man who supervises their upkeep. "There are certain things you don't do," he says. "You stick your arm in there, you'd be real sorry, real fast." Does Ball like one type of bear better than another? "I don't do that," he answers, almost instantly.
Kinsey doesn't mind playing favorites with his mammals. "I love elephants best," he says, "because they're enigmatic, problematic, fascinating and incredibly intelligent. We can't even keep a bull elephant here, because we couldn't have one running around the zoo terrorizing people. Actually, I wouldn't mind, but I guess the people might.
"Why can't we just be with the animals?" he asks himself. "I mean, bears--why can't they just wander around, and if they're hungry, we just get out of their way? Bears are very intelligent. They'd figure it out. Would we?