I like watching animals, four-legged, finned, or human. As a writer it is integral to my work that I observe the behavior of others in order to grasp what motivates them. It is best to do this in the creature’s natural environment: on the veldt, under the waves, or at a city café. I have been fortunate to have this opportunity, but I am not alone in my penchant for gawking. Judging from the crowd at Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, fauna viewing is not an exclusive pastime of maladjusted writers. We seem to gather instinctive joy out of ogling other beings, mesmerized by their quotidian affairs, eager to glean their intimate habits. The stranger the beast to us, the more fascinated our interest.
The obsession begins at a tender age. There is the stuffed critter that accompanies our bedtimes; the books in which we learn our mother tongue through the help of illustrated wildlife; the movies about lost pets or talking bears, ducks, foxes, and fish on an adventure. Eventually, we may visit our first lion within the confines of a zoo or meet a shark inside a tank. That physical encounter is significant and will become more so for future generations as habitats diminish. The faces of the children around me hold the same expression, wonder. They inspect the circling bluefins, the undulating jellies, the placid turtles. In groups of varying attention they listen to fun facts about the mating of puffins, touch the starfish, giggle at penguin antics. For most this will be the only time they will get to experience our marine wilderness.
I remember the emaciated tiger I beheld at my first menagerie, pacing its empty double-barred cage — within its miserable face were eyes that contained other worlds. Decades later, as an adult I confronted that uncanny look in its unfettered complexity at Ranthambore National Park. Only then did I comprehend a little of the appeal behind our scrutiny of other species. Stare into a snake’s slits, a cheetah’s pupils, a dolphin’s aperture and they reveal a peculiar familiarity. They are of us yet separate; sharing common traits of physiology while existing as complete realms unto themselves. We examine them, collect data about them, survey them behind glass. Still they mystify us by a sideways glance, a long probe, an abrupt confrontation that puts us in our place. Baffled by our need of them and our power over their fate, we grapple with how to subsist with them. We enslave them, idolize them, make sport of them, gather them in containers, and anthropomorphize them, always measuring them against our distorted standards. Though we share one planet, it seems our universes can only collide.
When we gaze into an animal’s life, what is it we hope to catch? I find tranquility while contemplating crimson-gold sea nettles flow past me through an electric blue background. A black-necked stilt wading through planted grass fills me with nostalgia. As the anchovy school spiral around the kelp forest exhibit, I swim with them in my imagination. For a brief moment I partake in their grazing ritual, mouth agape, a teeming underwater fabric coursing through me. It is hallucinatory and like all such excursions comes with a price, but not one I will pay. I can walk out into the coastal California sunshine. Free to wander away, I can leave the captive creatures of the deep revolving around their artificial domains. I can relegate the starfish, anemone, otter, and manta to mere circus attractions.
As we struggle with our responsibilities towards them, what role will places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium play in this complicated puzzle? Will it be too late for the field trippers being taught about the dangers of contamination to devise holistic solutions to protect the ocean’s depleting diversity? Which of the youngsters purchasing plush whales as souvenirs will regard the kingdom of non-humans as valuable unto itself? In the midst of raging debate over the morality of zoos and vivariums, the responsibility of stewardship belongs not just to these institutions but also each of its patrons.
A few steps away, under the cobalt Pacific depths, untamed cousins of all the aquarium dwellers perform their dance. If I am to do these fauna justice I have to become a participant. I have to further decrease my consumption and commit to my recycling habits. I have to learn about aquatic ecosystems. I have to support the unbiased scientific research that carries on behind the scenes. I have to do more than visit wildlife reserves and national parks to gaze at the inhabitants. I must be a partner to the beasts who provide me with so many life lessons. Then, I can look them in the eye.
Plastic pollution is a major threat to marine wildlife and the Monterey Bay Aquarium is working to be part of the solution by avoiding single-use plastic. Visitors are encouraged to bring their own reusable bags and, when purchasing gifts, choose items that are environmentally responsible and made by local artisans.
Have a favorite children’s book about animals? Have a favorite underwater creäture you have seen? Share in the comments below.