“To a Cat”

Panther in the Wild

If you look hard at my life, you will see that it is like a marginal gloss to the poems, essays, and stories of the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges. Ever since I first came across his work around 1970, I have returned to it again and again as to an ineffable guide. Here is one of his poems, called “To a Cat.” I have visited the zoo in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires where Borges probably got the inspiration for this poem.

Jungle Waterfalls at Buenos Aires Zoo (2011)

To a Cat

Mirrors are not more silent
nor the creeping dawn more secretive;
in the moonlight, you are that panther
we catch sight of from afar.
By the inexplicable workings of a divine law,
we look for you in vain;
More remote, even, than the Ganges or the setting sun,
yours is the solitude, yours the secret.
Your haunch allows the lingering
caress of my hand. You have accepted,
since that long forgotten past,
the love of the distrustful hand.
You belong to another time. You are lord
of a place bounded like a dream.

 

The Living Desert

Mountain Lion at the Living Desert Zoo in Palm Desert

Not to worry: There was a thick layer of glass between me and that mountain lion. I took this picture ten years ago when I went with Martine to one of my favorite zoos in Southern California, the Living Desert in Palm Desert. (The other one is the small but otherwise perfect Santa Barbara Zoo in the city of the same name.)

This was before my brother and sister-in-law moved to Palm Desert. Martine and I had just done an overnighter, staying at the local Motel 6. J know it wasn’t exactly ten years ago because I can’t see myself visiting the lower desert in the Coachella Valley in the heat of July.

Martine and I will be taking something of a risk visiting the Owens Valley next week, as the daily temperatures are expected to range between 60º and 98º Fahrenheit (16º to 37º Celsius) with the humidity hovering around 20%. The only thing that will make that bearable is that, if it gets too hot, we can always drive to higher latitudes and relax. There are only a few things we want to see in the floor of the valley, but those are all things we’ve seen before.

We will have a large cooler with us filled with block ice and plenty of water, along with a few goodies in case we feel like roughing it at high altitude. After all, for most of our trip, we will be in the shadow of the highest mountain range in the contiguous forty-eight states.

 

Flamingo Road

Chilean Flamingos at the Santa Barbara Zoo

On Saturday, Martine and I drove to Santa Barbara for a fish and chips lunch at the Harbor and a visit to the local zoo. Los Angeles has a bigger zoo, but it’s too big, too crowded—and it’s difficult to get buy without multiple stroller collision injuries. They’re always doing construction and forcing large numbers of visitors down narrow pathways, ending up with massive foot traffic jams.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, there are two smaller museums that I love: The Living Desert in the Coachella Valley and the Santa Barbara Zoo.

Like all zoos, it is impossible to see all the animals because:

  • Some of them have been withdrawn for various reasons
  • Others prefer to be in hiding, escaping the prying eyes of the gawkers

No matter, I got an eyeful of what I wanted to see, especially Chadwick the African lion, who is usually in the latter category, except that he is visible from the little train ride that circles the 32 acres of the zoo. Plus we saw the elephants, the gibbons, the Humboldt penguins, the giraffes (who have a much harder time of it if they wanted to hide). Oh yes, we also saw (and smelled) the Chilean Flamingos.

Bronze Plaque Honoring Gemina the Crooked Neck Giraffe

There is even a nice bronze plaque commemorating Gemina, the zoo’s late “crooked neck giraffe,” who died in 2008. I remember seeing her, with her neck that took off at a 90 degree angle midway up. It looked incredibly painful; but Gemina had a longer than normal life and was attractive enough to at least one male giraffe who made her a successful mother with healthy issue. One of these days, I’ll try to find one of my pictures of Gemina. I know I took several on former trips to the zoo.

 

At the Santa Barbara Zoo and Mission

Meerkat on Guard at the Santa Barbara Zoo

Today I rented a car to take Martine and me to Santa Barbara. My 1994 Nissan Pathfinder has a brake warning light and ABS warning light, requiring me to take it into the shop on Monday. (Even without the warning lights, I would have rented a car. It would be far cheaper than towing the Nissan great distances.)

It doesn’t take long to “do” the SB Zoo, which at 30 acres merits about two hours, more if you want to sit down and take in the atmosphere. It is only a few hundred yards from Cabrillo Beach, which makes it all the better. And today was a relatively cool day.

After the zoo, we had some extra time, so we revisited the Santa Barbara Mission—founded in 1789 by Padre Fermín Lasuén, who took over the entire chain of twenty-one missions for Padre Junípero Serra after the latter’s death. I know that the Spanish missions were involved in the suppression of the local Indian tribes, yet remain as so many islands of peace dotting the California landscape.

The Santa Barbara Franciscan Mission

As we were touring the mission’s museum, one of the old Franciscan padres introduced himself to us. He looked frail, probably in his eighties, but was friendly. We toured the old church and the adjoining small cemetery as well. According to a sign in the cemetery, there are some 800 Chumash Indians buried there, not to mention the Spanish conquistadors and subsequent American settlers and their families.

On the way home, we decided to skip the coastal route (there was serious construction on Route 1 in Santa Monica) and the even more crowded U.S. 101 in favor of Route 126 through Santa Paula and Fillmore. It added perhaps ten miles to our trip, but it was more restful driving through all that farm country. Plus, we stopped at Cornejo’s fruit stand near Fillmore to buy some white peaches and plums.

Gemina

Gemina, the Giraffe With the Crooked Neck

Tomorrow, I will take Martine to one of our favorite places, the Santa Barbara Zoo. Martine will probably leave me at some point in the next two or three weeks, so I want to spend some of that time revisiting places we love.

Although Los Angeles has a bigger zoo, it is so crowded and so constricted by constant construction that visitors have a hard time negotiating the paths without getting run over by harassed parents pushing strollers. As their website says, the SB Zoo has 500 animals and only 30 acres. That’s just about our speed, and tomorrow promises to be a nice day.

The most remarkable animal we have seen at the Zoo is the late Gemina, the giraffe with the crooked neck. The following long quote is a release from the zoo that I thought I’d like to pass on to you:

If you visited the Zoo between 1990 and 2008, you probably saw an unusual giraffe. Her name was Gemina and she had a crook in her neck.

Born at the San Diego Wild Animal Park (now San Diego Safari Park) in 1986, Gemina was a Baringo (or Rothschild’s) giraffe, and joined the Santa Barbara Zoo’s giraffe herd when she was just about a year old.

Her neck seemed normal until a bump appeared when she was around three years old. Slowly, over time, it sharpened into a distinctive “V”, which interrupted the graceful curve of her neck.

Though she was examined by veterinarians, a cause for the crook could not be determined. The good news? In spite of her appearance, she didn’t exhibit any signs of being in pain.

In fact, the crook didn’t hamper Gemina’s life at the Zoo. She received normal treatment by zookeepers, ate normally, gave birth to a calf, and was an accepted member of the Zoo’s giraffe herd. She was beloved by our guests, locals and visitors alike.

Long before I came to work here as the Zoo’s publicist, management had decided not to sensationalize Gemina. We could have emblazoned her image on t-shirts and made banners with her silhouette, but that’s not our style. She was a member of the giraffe herd, and not to be exploited. We responded to media requests, but didn’t push out the story.

But Gemina became an icon in spite of our low-key approach. In its second season (2004), “The Bachelor” filmed a sunset dinner at the giraffe exhibit, and the couple met Gemina. In the 2005 television show “Miracle Workers,” she was the source of inspiration for a young boy with severe scoliosis. In 2007, she was voted Number One of the “Seven Wonders of Santa Barbara” in a local radio station poll.

Martine at the Santa Barbara Zoo in 2007 … in Happier Times

By then, she was 20 years old, which is elderly for a giraffe in captivity. We threw a party for her 21st birthday, knowing that her time was nearing an end. Many of us had tears in our eyes when Zoo Campers, wearing self-made giraffe hats, sang “Happy Birthday.”

She lived another five months, before she stopped eating and her health declined. Gemina was humanely euthanized on January 9, 2008. It was a sad day at the Zoo.

But her memory lives on. Gemina is still the most asked-about animal at the Zoo, even eight years later. A children’s book, “Gemina the Crooked-Neck Giraffe,” written and illustrated by Karen B. Winnick, was released in 2013, and is still for sale in the Zoo Gift Store (all proceeds benefit the Zoo).

Now, her fans can again visit Gemina. Her distinctive top six vertebrae, skull, and jawbone have been preserved and rearticulated, and are now on view in a display case as part of the Zoo’s “Animals…Inside Out” art exhibit in the Discovery Pavilion’s Volentine Gallery.

It’s free, with admission, to view Gemina and the exhibit of cool animal x-rays. Gemina’s skeleton is on view 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays, and 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekends.

Thanks goes to Skulls Unlimited for her skeletal work, and to TruPart, a Ventura company, for building the display case free of charge.

Gemina reminds us all that being different is just fine. She’s a reminder to me not to blithely feed the media’s appetite for the odd and outrageous. That we can tell a quieter story, about being accepted in a herd of your peers and loved by a generation of visitors. That one giraffe can still stand tall, even with a crooked neck.

 

Griifith Park Circa 1955

Former Site of the L.A. Zoo (Until 1965)

Former Site of the L.A. Zoo (Until 1965)

Today Martine and I spent a few hours in Griffith Park just northwest of Downtown L.A. First I showed her the site of the old Los Angeles Zoo before it was abandoned and moved to a larger site a little more than a mile north. The rockwork was done by the WPA during the 1930s and looked fairly artistic—probably more so than the current zoo, which we don’t like visiting because of the endless construction and consequent poor pedestrian traffic management.

The old zoo site is surrounded by pleasant picnic tables unknown to the mass of visitors. Unfortunately, they are known to the legions of yellowjackets that inhabit the canyon.

Afterwards, we went to the Travel Town Museum up the road about three miles. An open-air transport museum first opened in 1952, Travel Town features an extensive display of old locomotives, passenger and freight cars, cabooses, and related railroading equipment. There is even a little passenger train that runs around the park.

Steam Locomotive with Peeling Paint

Steam Locomotive with Peeling Paint

Although most of the rolling stock is in sad repair (see the peeling paint on the steam locomotive above), the park is popular with parents who want someplace to take their kids without spending a fortune. Sometimes I wonder how long a place like Travel Town can continue to exist without a massive infusion of cash, which is very unlikely to ever happen. It would be a pity, because the place was full of little reserved areas for children’s birthday parties, both outfoors and in some of the passenger cars.

In any case, Martine and I enjoyed ourselves.

 

Penguin Feeding Time

Friday Afternoon Penguin Feeding

Friday Afternoon Penguin Feeding

I have always loved penguins. They are at one and the same time naive and well able to defend themselves with their razor-sharp beaks. The penguins on display at the Santa Barbara Zoo, which Martine and I visited last Friday, are Humboldt Penguins from around Peru, close to the Equator.

Never have I seen any emperor penguins, though I did see one disconsolate king penguin in Tierra Del Fuego in 2011 who got lost from his group and wound up with a colony of Magellanic and Gentoo Penguins on Isla Martillo in the Beagle Channel. (See picture below.)

Lost King Penguin in Argentina

Lost King Penguin in Argentina

That King Penguin was making a nuisance of himself by trying to mate with the smaller local penguins, who were having none of that particular type of miscegenation.

Why do Martine and I like the Santa Barbara Zoo instead of the much larger one at Griffith Park in Los Angeles? It seems that every time we go to the L.A. Zoo, they are undergoing major construction, forcing large crowds of people into narrow walkways past some upcoming future attraction. Until that future attraction arrives in the sweet by-and-by, we would be assailed by countless strollers wielded by desperate parents pushing their progeny through a surly mob. The future is nice, but I usually make my judgments based on the present.

There is some construction going on at the Santa Barbara Zoo, but it is small-scale compared to the pharaonic scale of L.A.

I’ve always loved zoos. We had a good time in November 2011 at the Buenos Aires Zoo, and I am toying with the idea of visiting the small Reykjavik Zoo in Iceland this June.

It was pretty hot the two days we were in Santa Barbara, but there are always a lot of shady benches for us to rest and re-hydrate ourselves.