So I decided it was a good day to go to the zoo, only I forgot that no day is a good day for me to go to the zoo. Anyone who can’t own a fishtank because she worries about the fish getting bored, a zoo trip… unadvisable.

National isn’t the worst zoo I’ve ever been to — Seattle will be holding that title as long as they adhere to that one-hen-one-rooster policy — but large areas of it are still fairly old-style and thus rather unnatural. I somehow ended watching a serval (an African feline about twice the size of a housecat) pacing in that way animals do when captivity is causing them severe emotional stress.

He was in a pen about the size of my last apartment, going back and forth in a five-foot area next to the fence, not apparently noticing anything around him (not that there’s a lot of traffic near the serval pen). The top of the fence is electrified; the top of the cage had a net over it so birds and other potential diversions were unlike to fly in. He had a hiding area, but it appeared to be mainly concrete. He wasn’t looking at anything in particular — in fact, he reminded me of that thing I do when someone’s stressing me out really profoundly. (Hard to describe. Try it sometime, or better yet don’t, because when I snap out of it the aftermath shows up on satellite photos.)

His misery was palpable, and do you blame him? This is his life, a sliver of hard-packed, mostly bare, profoundly circumscribed terrain with nothing to do all day but sleep or pace or eat when permitted. I understand the serval is more or less threatened in various of its habitats, but is this the best we can do? There’s an old philosopher’s dilemma about allowing a town to enjoy unlimited peace, happiness and prosperity as long as they agree to condemn one of their number to an existence locked away from everyone else and tormented for no reason in particular, deprived of every good thing regardless of his personal merits or faults. Is the zoo different? Different enough?

Hell, I don’t know, maybe kitty was having whatever constitutes a bad day for Leptailurus serval. Maybe he was waiting on a phone call from his agent. Maybe I’m reading too much into compulsive, unfocused pacing. But I don’t think so, and I don’t believe I can visit the zoo again. At least the animals at the Smithsonian are already dead.


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