Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Gorillas in the missed

Polar bears made a bit of a splash in the Irish papers lately. It seems an international team of scientists sequenced the DNA of more than 240 bears, living and long dead, including bones from the National Museum of Ireland of a bear that lived more than ten thousand years ago at the height of the last ice age. The conclusion: All polar bears alive today are descended from a common female ancestor, a now extinct Irish brown bear.

Hard times. Ireland mostly covered with ice. An ice shelf extending 30 or 40 kilometers into the sea. And the great migration began. Into the icy white wastes of the north. An Irish diaspora.

Natural selection began its refining task. More body fat. Thicker, whiter fur. Adaption to the arctic environment.

I remember when I saw my first polar bear, a single individual in the Attleboro Zoo, in the town of Attleboro, Massachusetts, more than 40 years ago. I stood thunderstruck before the bear's enclosure. Such magnificence. Such power. Then, the heartbreaking sadness. That splendid creature, so perfectly adapted to a white wilderness of ice, confined to a narrow concrete platform and pool of tepid water.

Zoos have come a long way since I was a kid. Gone are the prisonlike bars, the bare concrete walls and floors. Zoos no longer collect animals merely for display. Their agendas emphasize education, breeding, and conservation. No contemporary zoo of any stature will display a rare or vulnerable animal unless it intends to promote an increase in that species' population.

And who would want to deny children a chance to see a real live polar bear or a family of marmosets?

And yet, and yet…

I recall visiting the Boston Zoo's new, state-or-the-art gorilla house some years ago. The beautifully-cared-for animals resided in a lovely, naturalistic enclosure behind thick glass. As I stood there watching, a gorilla was patiently picking rubbery caulk out of the glass frames and eating it.