A zoo in winter is a strange place to feel awe. A zoo is a place that symbolizes captivity, leashed freedom. But it’s not the place, although the Menagerie of Paris, France is one of the better zoos I’ve seen. With wide, clean paddocks, there is enough space, but not here. Not for this animal, and he is why I feel awe. And sorrow.
The Northern Chinese Panther is pacing in front of me, tension in the sleek muscles bunching beneath the smooth yellow and black pelt. His light amber eyes bounce around, seeming to pin all of us who just stand there and look with a promise of retaliation. His strong jaw opens, showing the thick yellowed fangs. A warning to the children on their school trip, who jump, scream and keep pace with him. Not that they understand the warning. To them, he is a pretty kitty in a glass cage.The panther is separated from the gawking crowd by a railing and a thick sheet of glass. Above the glass are metal bars, allowing sound and air to enter the cage.
I raise my camera, jockeying with the mothers and fathers around me to try and get a picture of the fast pacing cat, but I soon give up and switch to video. No matter my empathy for him, I still act like a tourist, watching him pace, taking pictures, and moving on.
Next to the panther, a black jaguar paces just as restlessly. The bumps of his spine undulate as he moves back and forth, blinking rapidly and refusing to look at anyone. He is so close I can see the darker rosettes in his slightly lighter colored fur. His large, heavy head swings back and forth, and I can imagine him searching for somewhere to run and hide. His jaw opens and closes, almost as if he is meowing like a house cat, but there’s no sound. The wind grows colder, the laughter and calling, as well as the clicking of cameras, seems to be louder. I can see the cat’s ears twitching, taking in the rush of noise. Again, I take my video and move on.
I step around the teacher counting his kindergartners and come to the last cage, where a clouded leopard sits right in front of the glass, as if daring the world. His light grey fur is shaggy and long, the dark rosettes often blurring into the grey. The fur of his tail is puffed up, making it look twice as big as the other big cats’. His head is arrogantly turned away, but every now and then he will turn and look disdainfully at someone who is waving at him, trying to attract his attention. He appears outwardly calm, almost defiant, but his ears are tellingly laid back. He is smaller than the panther and jaguar, but stockier, more than likely able to hold his own in the wild. So why aren’t they there?
I take a few pictures and move on, listening as the birdsong gets louder and more frequent the further I go from the cages. The rest of the zoo seems to be mostly herbivores, and I practically ignore them as I think about the cats. I might be a hypocrite, but whereas I can look at the grazers and smile and think they’re cute, I can’t imagine the cats are happy in their glass pens. To me, there’s something fundamentally wrong with keeping a predator locked up. Such a strong, beautiful animal should be free to roam the wilds. And whenever I see them, I’m always inspired to be more. To become a vet, a wildlife conservationist, or a zoologist. To do something amazing with my life, that will help these cats to flourish.
I circle back around to the cats, and walk up to the panther. He’s now sitting up on a rock, so that the wind can touch him through the bars. Our eyes meet and for a few seconds I think I can see the sadness in his eyes. And tears well up in mine.
About the Author: Simone Gambrell is a 24 year old South African, currently living and working in Paris, France. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Languages and Ancient Cultures, as well as a certificate in travel writing from MatadorU. She enjoys travelling and writing, but hasn’t yet published anything and keeps forgetting to set up a personal blog.