A screenshot for a map of the Chattanooga Zoo

A long time ago, it’s been maybe eighteen or twenty years now, I worked at the Chattanooga Zoo. I had volunteered there the summer before, helping out with a week-long day camp, and applied for a job as a camp counselor the next with a brand-spanking new teaching certificate. I knew next to nothing about animals, but quite a bit about kids. Seeing as I didn’t actually have to touch/feed/corral/clean-up after jaguars or chimpanzees or kinkajous, it worked out fine for the most part. Yes, there was some local TV footage of one of the petting zoo goats trying to eat my shirt. Yes, the smell of animal pens in summer is pretty strong. Yes, I once dropped a ferret that the kids were taking pictures with because it got super wiggly and I HAVE NEVER EVER HAD A FURRY PET AND FREAKED OUT-but overall the gig suited me. Coloring pictures of zoo animals, putting on animal-themed plays, supervising “Sharks and Minnows”, passing out goldfish crackers and walking kids over to the zoo keepers who actually taught them about the job was right up my alley.

So one of the activities we always did with the kids, no matter the age group, was design “enrichment” for the animals. We froze fruit into giant ice rings and watched the keepers hang it from a tree, and then watched the chimpanzees work to get their treat out. We filled paper towel rolls with whatever food raccoons eat (I couldn’t tell you, despite actually physically holding their food-I absolutely don’t know what to do with animals) and tied tissue paper to the ends to make them puzzle out how to get whatever they could smell but couldn’t see. The Chattanooga Zoo often takes in animals that have nowhere else to go-there might be a serval cat abandoned by its owner here, a declawed mountain lion confiscated from other owners there. These animals are saved and cared for-and not really meant to be in a zoo.

My husband and I have been kind of sharing an office for the last six months. He used to travel every week for work, and this is the longest stretch of time we’ve been in the same state in the last thirteen years. I duck in and out occasionally to get some writing done or to find an old file or grab a new book, but I’ve kind of abandoned my stake in the room for him to get all of his conference calls done in peace. One time back in March or April when I had snuck in quietly, mimed the question, “Are you on video?” to which he arched his eyebrows in a “Yes”, I got to hear a question from his Zoom call- “How are you doing out there?”

My guy laughed and answered, “You know, it’s like being in a zoo. It’s a really nice zoo. It’s got great amenities, all my favorite stuff. I have a good view out the window and I’m keeping fed. But you can’t leave.” I thought about that a lot for the rest of quarantine, about what animals and people are meant to do and what we’re stuck doing right now.

A mountain lion isn’t meant to pace back and forth in an enclosure, no matter how well furnished the enclosure is or how closely the artifice matches its natural surroundings. The tarantulas are not meant to be in small plastic boxes and handed crickets. I bet we had migrating animals that sure as hell weren’t migrating down Holtzclaw Avenue.

When animals can’t do what they are meant to do, they can become despondent-and this is where “enrichment” comes in. Zoo keepers I’m sure have a lot of other tricks and tools, but it never escaped me that having them there to set up new puzzles and games was definitely important to the animals’ well-being. When you can’t escape where you are you need something to keep your mind sharp, novelty to look forward to, a challenge and a treat.

Towards the end of summer before online learning was supposed to start we all had kind of lost the desire or ability to keep morale up. We don’t do much outside the house. When we do it is carefully couched in precautions, or moved to times when we’re less likely to bump into a million people, or spaced out from other outings to minimize our risks. We are working on fixing up and decorating our enclosure. We try to make it more usable and well-equipped. We’ve been in our zoo for six months.

Humans are social creatures, a species that famously enjoys solving new and varied problems by going out into the world and grappling with the complexities of whole communities, whole societies. Everything we just do for survival-feeding ourselves, securing shelter, keeping hydrated-has become a collective activity that involves hundreds if not thousands of people working cooperatively. Human beings as an animal species has evolved over millennia to interact with each other and to keep our brains busy. No matter how introverted I may be, it seems to be an inescapable truth that being on my own with just a few other people the majority of the time is at odds with what is optimal. 

We had hummed along doing okay for a long time, and then we weren’t. There is undoubtedly immense grief we need to move through, worry to constantly temper, and uncertainty that erodes the foundations under our feet. But in addition, we have had to be both the zoo animals and the zoo keepers AT THE SAME TIME. We have needed enrichment and don’t have thoughtful caregivers who fuss over our survival and our happiness as their sole job. We don’t have some outside benevolent force arranging things to challenge our brains or surprise us or delight us. (I mean if you’re very lucky you might-Thanks Wendy!) For the majority of the time, especially over a long daycamp-less summer, we’ve had to arrange for enrichment for ourselves. And the longer this summer has worn on the harder it is to come up with something you’ve never thought to come up with before. It’s like trying to tickle yourself-which is to say it’s nearly impossible. You can occupy your time pleasantly enough, you can indulge in treats, but it’s really incredibly difficult to challenge or surprise yourself without outside help. We try to be thoughtful zoo keepers for each other, but generally most zoo keepers get nights and weekends off and have someone else picking up the overnight shifts so that they can have time not thinking about caring for zoo animals 24/7.

The kids started online school two weeks ago. And having been a teacher before, having seen a zoo in action and now really truly getting how important enrichment is for somewhat trapped creatures I hope I don’t sound insulting when I say how happy I am to have some zoo keepers back in our life. Having teachers thoughtfully working out how to keep students engaged and challenged and socially happy has taken a huge weight off of our shoulders. Having a collective of humans working cooperatively so that we all share the load of figuring out how to give kids what they need feels so much more aligned with what humans want to do. We want to have community, we want to solve problems at an interconnected level. This can’t be easy for our teachers, not at all, and I hope against hope that they have time to rest and that they are being cared for by the people in their lives. But I am relieved and happy with this part of our lives changing.

I still have to figure out my own enrichment, but without worrying about whether my kids have enough I think I can. Writing this blog post alone is self-administered enrichment-my brain has something new to focus on, a puzzle to work through, a treat at the end. I heard once that being a writer is giving yourself homework every night for the rest of your life, and that feels true and relevant. I’ve also signed myself up for an online class, so that maybe when that starts I’ll get a break from being my own zoo keeper for a while-since it seems quite unlikely that I’ll get to escape this zoo anytime soon.