Hebe Uhart: A Brief Account of the Zoos I Cannot Forget
On the Habits of Animals in Captivity
I’m making my way toward the Lima zoo, remembering all the zoological parks I’ve seen in my life: there’s one in San José, Uruguay, where they have a monkey and swan enclosure. The monkey has a two-story hut on dry land, and surrounding this hut is a pond where the swans go around and around. The monkey lives in fear, like a paranoid homeowner, for the swans are cat burglars; almost without looking, quickly and with ease, they’ll steal something they see in the grass that belongs to the monkey’s garden. The monkey spends his time going from top to bottom, climbing upstairs to get a better view of his enemies and then down again, a tree branch in hand, hoping to give them a whack, but they’ve already made their escape.
At the Central Park Zoo in New York (air-conditioned), there is another concurrence of swans and monkeys. The latter are numerous and live on a kind of rocky island, while the swans move through the water surrounding the island. I watched the monkeys at their usual activities: some picking for fleas, others sleeping, one standing watch. Suddenly a swan went by, honking loudly, and all the monkeys, as if choreographed, completely switched their positions and roles. Something happened, something I can’t explain. Nor can I explain why this concurrence of monkeys and swans is repeated.
I’ve been to the zoo in Asunción, where there’s a sign in the snake room that says, “NO SCREAMING,” and the one in Mendoza, quite lovely and built right into the sheer mountain slope, uphill, so that if you make it up there you can see the whole city. Also the one in Frankfurt, where I saw an orangutan meticulously smoothing out his bed of grass before sitting down, the way you might straighten sheets.
And I also went to the one in Santiago, Chile, although, since I had someone else with me, I can’t remember which animals I saw. I like to visit zoological parks because I believe the animals and placards in them share national characteristics. The Uruguayan monkey, as would be the case for an Argentine monkey as well, must contend alone against injustice and abuse, while the ones in Central Park quickly line up in a distinct way as though obeying some mechanical and universal code of conduct. The monkey in Frankfurt, while smoothing out his bed, keeps in mind what ought to be, a central concept in philosophy.
At the Lima zoo, there’s a fence of blue morning glories and crowds of high-school kids, brown; at first glance, from a distance, the animals look brown as well, in gray tones with bits of tan and black. The dusky hawk is inside a cage with a placard: “Don’t come past the barrier, I don’t want to hurt you.” From time to time the hawk lets loose a foolish authoritarian cry, hopping his way around and screeching when he alights. Next door are the llamas, curious but discrete, and if you fix your attention on them they’ll avert their eyes like city people who only look when you’re not looking. (Cows and pigs will look you right in the eyes.)
This all belongs to such a different world that the zoo seems like a piece of the country wedged inside a vast city.
Among the animals there is also the Pampas cat, striped and larger than a domestic one. It has a sign: “I’m on a diet, if you give me food it may be harmful to me.” It’s different from the signs at the Buenos Aires Zoo: “Do not throw food to the animals.” These signs are a demonstration of Lima’s diplomacy, deterring you with good manners. Nearby is the long-winged harrier, whose stare moves rhythmically from one corner to the other so as not to miss a single thing.
The condor has a white collar, and when he spreads his enormous wings, the children watching let out great shrieks. They’re there with a teacher who looks like a woman to be reckoned with, and she asks them about things they already know: “Does he have feathers? How many feet?”
The teacher has a voice like a street vendor, calling out, “They eat roadkill!” The kids already know this, as you can tell by their resounding and exasperated “Yes.” I, who am taking notes, make it around 20 children who are doing the same. Nearby is the Andean puma, and he has some difficulty sitting down because he’s getting old. In Colombia, they say of very hesitant people that they “have the three speeds of a donkey: idle, standing, and sitting down.”
Well then, the puma has three speeds for sitting down. Next to him is the oncilla, a miniature tiger, with a sign: “Noises bother me, please don’t knock on the glass.” Next door, the viscacha, who has ears resembling a rabbit’s and moves her mouth the same way they do. People call them mountain rabbits. The hummingbird is called korikenti and the great kiskadee Ay mamá, ay mamá yayá.
Next I saw the toucan, who has a Paraguayan hammock hanging in his space for when he rests; he was scratching at fleas. I went back to look at the condor, and later on I read about him: they can reach four meters in length with their wings extended, can fly at up to 10,000 meters, jet cruising altitude, and belong to the same family as falcons, caracaras, and vultures; they like to have a falcon for their neighbor. And the name “condor” comes from Quechua, kuntur.
In the trees along the path that leads the way out of the zoo are the great kiskadees and the lovely fence of blue morning glories. As soon as you leave, the city appears with traffic lights, cars, and a few little bars. And this all belongs to such a different world that the zoo seems like a piece of the country wedged inside a vast city.
Excerpted from Animals by Hebe Uhart, translated from the Spanish by Robert Croll. Excerpted with the permission of Archipelago Books. Translation copyright © 2021 by Robert Croll.