By DON MEYER, Ph.D.
Nearly 50 years have passed since I last visited the Philadelphia Zoo. I remember going there as a small child and looking at the animals with wide-eyed wonder. Nothing captures a child's imagination more than exotic creatures from exotic places.
I didn't know then that the Philadelphia Zoo opened on July 1, 1874 as "America's First Zoo." As Clark DeLeon says in his book America's First Zoostory (1999), "Once upon a time, long ago, before there was City Hall, before there was a bronze hatted William Penn atop its tower, before there was an Art Museum or a Parkway or a Philadelphia Orchestra; before there was a Mummers Parade up Broad Street or a subway underneath it ... there was a zoological garden in Philadelphia."
The shape of the zoo has always been in the design of a "Big D." The straight part runs north and south on 34th street and the curved part of the "D" is created by the merging of a dozen train tracks entering Philadelphia.
Some sights inside haven't changed in 50 years. As I stood on the steps along the wall in the Carnivore House listening to the roar of the lions, I realized I could see much better than when I was a little boy. The animals seemed much larger 50 years ago but they still amazed me.
As we walked through the zoo, I saw statues of animals and numerous old buildings I remembered seeing as a child. In those days, the monkeys and snakes and elephants and tigers and bears and everything else were almost too much for me to take in.
I didn't know then about the debate about the morality of zoos. Actually, I don't think it was much of a debate in 1950. The issue today: Is it right to keep wild animals captive in an unnatural environment? Today the mission of most zoos, including the Philadelphia Zoo, has significantly expanded from displaying animals for public amusement to the mission of conservation of endangered species.
If someone has a problem with zoos, DeLeon describes with considerable anxiety the notion of a zero zoo world, and what would be lost to both individual animals and individual humans by the absence of zoos.
How would you like to work at a zoo? According to Steve Cepregi, the head lion keeper at the Philadelphia Zoo, "There are no second chances on this job." He says that animals are dangerous not because they are evil but because they are wild. They can be trained, but never tamed. And never confuse the difference between the two.
Scott Bartow, a monkey keeper in the Rare Animal House at the Philadelphia Zoo, cannot believe the remarks of some visitors. He tells of some schoolteachers with children stopping in front of a cage he was cleaning. After seeing him, they turned to the children and said, "See what happens if you don't get a good education. You end up with a job like that."
Those who work at the zoo say the best part of the job is "being close to the animals."
The highlight of our recent visit to the zoo was not remembering my childhood visit or learning about its history or even considering what its like to work there. This visit was all planned around our family: Kevin, Michelle and their son, Noah (our grandson).
Nearly five decades separate those two visits of those two little boys to the Philadelphia Zoo. One is now called Grandpa with a lifetime of memories; the other is called Noah who is experiencing everything for the first time.
Think about it.
Editor's note: Dr. Meyer is president of Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville. Responses can be mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org