Over one winter break during college, a primate biology class attracted my eye.  Most of the class was carried out from lectures on books and was on basic taxonomy, anatomy and behavior of non-human primates.  Like most of the J-term classes taking place over winter break, there was also a lovely experiential approach to some of the class as well.  Since non-human primates are rarely found in the wild in Colorado where I studied biology, the class travelled to Denver to spend a day at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and another day at the Denver Zoo.  The weather was cold but no more than could be expected in Denver in January; the roads were a little slippery but not too much for the powder blue Toyota Prius I borrowed from my parents for the trip.  Moreover, the trip was a nice excuse to stay with my brother who was living in Denver at the time for a night.  Our assignment at the museum and zoo was simple, take notes on the collections and a few sketches of exhibits.  In the zoo, we had docents that helpfully talked to us about the interesting habits and history of the captive non-human primates.

A story that was told to us about the Orangutans is the only story that still sticks out in my mind.  The Orangutan habitat was a cage with a glass front that had been renovated in recent memory.  As workers were installing the plate glass at the front of the cage, the Orangutans watched them, apparently while placidly chewing on their plant based food.  The glass sheets were carefully lifted into place and screwed securely to the outer walls of the cage.  The next morning the workers were surprised to find that all of their work was undone.  Suspicions were confirmed by security cameras- in the night the Orangutans using nothing more than their thick fingernails and strong, dexterous hands had removed the screws and carefully piled them up.  Next the great apes had removed the delicate sheets of glass and gently leaned them against the wall of their cage.  Not only did the task the Orangutans completed require abstract thought and planning but teamwork and greater physical strength than a human.  Everyone in the class seemed amazed by the intelligence and strength of great apes, (so much like us!) without honoring the orangutans with the more important question of motivation.  Why would the primates disassemble their cage?  The answered implied by the story given was that there was no reason except that they could do it.  There is an obvious, more reasonable answer to the question of why if we’re already giving the orangutans acknowledgment of their intelligence.  The obvious reason for disassembling a cage is that you don’t like the cage.  Maybe an intelligent animal like an Orangutan actively hates being caged, limited and enslaved if only to be looked at.  Maybe taking off the glass front of the cage is a desperate attempt at communication; a desperate plea.

I talked to a coworker who once worked at a reptile zoo.  He told me about snakes coming from the wild and how it’s common for them to not eat for a long time, even up to a year. One snake, an Anaconda didn’t eat for a long time before it started eating very small food, rats.  To get the snake larger food my coworker sewed rabbits onto the rats the Anaconda was eating.  In all of this is the implicit assumption that a newly captive snake refusing food is just a behavioral idiosyncrasy.  There is an assumption that the snake’s behavior may suggest something vague like stress but does not signify anything of depth.

My first real experience with a wild animal in captivity was a pet chameleon.  I wanted a chameleon as a pet desperately and for my 15th or 16th birthday, my parents capitulated, giving me a gorgeous male veiled chameleon named Crabby.  It didn’t take me long to learn that Crabby was an apt name for my chameleon and the other two chameleons I was to own didn’t change my view of them much.  Chameleons aren’t beautiful, exotic reptilian puppies.  Chameleons view the world and social interaction differently than mammals, in the wild they’re mostly solitary creatures.  Even the most cursory interaction with a chameleon can stress it horribly but in the wild once the animal is looked at by a curious observer, it can quickly and quietly slip away to never be seen again.  In captivity chameleons are usually very often stressed by the observing human, even if that human has only the best intentions.  Veiled Chameleons become darker in color and erupt in evocative black speckles when they’re stressed, they hiss and bite if backed into a corner but there is really nothing they can do to escape a well-made cage.  After my experiences with chameleons, I decided I never again wanted to keep a wild animal in a cage if it could be avoided.

My only experience in exotic pet smuggling comes from time I spent on Abaco Island in the Bahamas, monitoring the nests of a local parrot, the Cuban Amazon.  Cuban Amazons are unique as parrots in that they nest in limestone cavities eroded into the forest floor.  To find nests we’d carefully watch parrots sitting in pine trees in the semi-tropical forest.  The parrots squawked and screamed and whistled at terrifying decibels; the sound was especially terrifying if you’d drunk too much the night before.  If the parrots were on a nest though, they could be quiet, secretive even if such a thing is possible for such a brightly colored bird with a red chest and an emerald back.  The nests were often at the bottom of quite deep limestone holes, sometimes easily beyond the reach of a human arm.  Part of the research I was helping with required banding the baby parrots and collecting blood for DNA analysis.  In the deeper nesting cavities, a pole with a basket taped to it was employed to catch the chicks and remove them for research.  The chicks hatched two or three in a nest a few days apart.  The chicks when they emerged from delicate shards of egg shell, were pink, blind, featherless blobs.  The chicks opened their mouths, calling and chirping for food at the slightest disturbance.  At the bottom of a limestone tunnel, huddled together it was hard to distinguish one parrot chick from another and they looked like a single two or three headed pink blob-ish creature.  In my field experience with birds, sea birds first and then parrots, I’d been shit on a lot.  I’ve been clawed, pecked, bit and vomited on with a chunky foul smelling liquid.  Parrots squawked and flapped.  All things considered it’s surprising that parrots are ever kidnapped from their wild homes to have their wings clipped, to be stuffed into cages and sold, to eventually be released to plague the everglades or die on a windswept prairie.  Yet one day we visited a nest, a nest we monitored but were careful not to mark with flagging tape or a sign, only marking it in a GPS unit, one day that nest was empty.  I learned in the Bahamas that despite parrots being wild creatures with angry dispositions, they were regularly caught and sold for a premium to pet smugglers who probably sold the young parrots (if they survived) to willfully ignorant consumers in Florida.

I do understand wanting a parrot on the one hand.  The parrots in the Bahamas had charming faces and were affectionate with each other; clearly these were social and clever creatures.  Years after my time in The Bahamas, I had a conversation with a man in an Ecuadorian restaurant about his several pet parrots.  What I remember most is the man being convinced he was giving his parrots a good life but also that the parrots were destructive.  I remember the man, an older gentlemen; an expatriate from the United States and his wife talking about their parrots chewing electrical cords and other mayhem.  The couple obviously adored their pet parrots and thought they were giving them good lives in their own way.  I can’t help but wonder if those parrot owners were making the same mistake I did with the orangutans at the zoo.  Maybe the parrots were destructive not because it’s in their nature but because they’re unhappy with their lives.  Maybe a parrot’s nature is to fly and squawk loudly in unruly flocks of its own kind.  Maybe a parrot’s nature is to live a life perhaps harder than captivity but freer.  Prisons, even those with every possible amenity offered are stifling to humans and we can’t fly or swing from tree branches, we can’t shake like a leaf in the wind as we stealthily stalk our prey.  We, after all, are only human and I have to wonder if our humanity gives us any just cause to shut something wild and beautiful up in bars for our own amusement.


Thank you to  For the photo at the beginning of this essay

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s