What the Zoo Taught Me About Animal Behavior


The other day my youngest daughter and I spent the afternoon at the zoo. It had be a few years since we had been and it seemed like the perfect place to meet up with our extended family in celebration of the holiday weekend. Surprise surprise, a lot of other people had a similar thought. But even despite the crowds and the heat—thank goodness for the shady footpaths—we enjoyed strolling the lush and lovely zoo grounds and visiting the animals.

As we sat down for lunch at a the hamburger stand near the giraffe exhibit—don’t even get me started on how precious the baby giraffe is—the chimpanzees began screeching. I could see the grassy hill of the exhibit from my seat and watched bits and pieces of the scuffle come in and out of view. But the sound! It was the kind of sound that you could feel in your gut. Finishing our lunch, we were all grimacing and wincing as the sound rose and fell, started and stopped only to start again; a hysterical chorus of screaming chimpanzees. It made me shiver. And yet, looking around, the sound seemed to excite the crowd.  People ran over to see what all the commotion was about. As we walked in that direction, the sounds subsided but the crowd grew. The fighting amongst the chimps ceased but the tension between them did not. I was chilled by an uncomfortable feeling of volatility and unrest.

As I pointed my camera at a chimp that had isolated itself up on a little rock ledge, the people around me we’re exchanging annoying anecdotes and laughing amongst themselves; loud, obnoxious, and totally ignorant.  The energy of the entire crowd was noticeably heightened. Before I could even trigger my shutter the woman next to me—who was holding a four year old boy—rose her voice stating with authority (and no compassion), “A baby chimp was killed here a week ago by one of the older chimps who smashed it’s head on a rock!” And with that my stomach dropped. Whether or not that was true almost didn’t matter. What alarmed me was her desire to share with everyone around her—including her young son—the graphic and gory details of a heartbreaking visual image. And a moment later the chimps began another round of screams and the woman began bouncing her son on her hip chanting, “Fight, flight, fight.”

Within the next few minutes I overheard a flood of disconcerting comments accompanied by frenetic and inappropriate laughter. Everything from “Look, he’s picking his nose” to “Look at that one’s giant butt” to a number of others to inappropriate and quite frankly, disturbing to repeat. As I observed the crowd around me, it was obvious that they were feeding off of each other. Or maybe they were feeding off of the energy of the chimpanzees. All that unrest and tension getting people whipped up into a frenzy of or maybe the chimps were feeding off the crowd. Or maybe both. For a moment it felt like there were no walls between us. As if our animal behavior connected us; acting, reacting, confined, and potentially explosive. The unstable climate of the situation was palpable. And as I began to make my way out of the crowd with my family I realized it was as close to a Lord of the Flies moment as I would ever hope to get.

As we passed by the giraffes I commented to the adults in our group at how disheartened and disturbed I had been, commenting in a huff, “I’m writing a post about this!” And so here I am. Writing. Remembering. Getting a knot in my stomach all over again.  But what am I trying to say? That I’ve lost all hope in humanity? That people scare me/anger me/frustrate me sometimes? That stupid people say stupid things and unfortunately can pass down their stupidity? That keeping wild animals in a zoo is wrong? That visiting a zoo is wrong?  Yes. No. Maybe.

We all slowly walked the path to the near empty Orangutan exhibit we stood at the bamboo fence and discovered a mama and her baby sitting together in a shaded corner. Calm, loving, playful and impossibly tender these two stretched, embraced, intertwined, preened, and cuddled for about a half hour as we watched. The people that came in and out of the exhibit respectfully watched the two together in quite reverie sharing an entirely different side of animal behavior. The scene brought tears to my eyes and warmed and healed the heart within me that only moments before felt broken and afraid.

I still don’t know how to make sense of it all really. All I do know is that for every part of our animal behavior that is bad, mean, cruel, fearful, and stupid, there exists a counterbalance. Behavior that’s good, kind, compassionate, courageous and brilliant that illuminates darkness, fills me with hope and restores my faith in our species.

orangutan baby


For more about Tracey and how she elevates the everyday, visit her at

For the story about how she and her teen got here, take a peek at their first post at Reframed.

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Article Posted 3 years Ago
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