Over the weekend of June 25, 2016 at the Bronx zoo, two separate individuals were arrested for trespassing after they crossed posted boundaries and entered two exhibits separately—the snow leopard and red panda. One of them, a reporter for the New York Post, was just trying to get some good pictures for a story. On May 28, not even a month earlier, a four-year-old boy slipped away from his mother and fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati zoo, and the tragic ending to this story suddenly made everyone in America an expert on parenting, gorilla behavior, and zoo design.
While troubling and often shocking, these stories are hardly new. Instead, they partake in a long history of sublime and violent encounters between humans and zoo animals, a history that resists easy explanations and online punditry, a history that repeats itself.
On the night of September 27th, 1982 security guards from the Central Park Zoo twice evicted Conrado Mones from zoo grounds. He’d been lingering around for a couple of days, acting strangely and drawing attention to himself by crossing marked boundaries and fences, getting too close to the animal enclosures.
“You have to get close to the animals,” he’d told one Zoo official.
When he was found on zoo grounds at 11:30 p.m., well after closing time, he was quickly escorted outside and told not to return. But at 3:00 a.m. the next morning Mones was back again, loitering just outside the African lion habitat.
As he was led away from the cages he reportedly begged of a guard, “Help me.”
Mones must have waited nearby, biding his time, perhaps hoping someone or something else might stop him, might save him. But nothing stopped him from breaking into the zoo again in the pre-dawn hours. Mones scaled fences, crossed all posted boundaries, evaded security, and found his way to the polar bear habitat.
Perhaps Mones had a few moments inside, a few seconds, even minutes to feel the tingle, the surge of adrenaline that one gets in close proximity to an apex predator. Or perhaps he was attacked instantly, as soon as his feet touched the water. The bear may have been waiting for him, or just waking from sleep, confused by the intruder. It’s hard to say for sure as there were no witnesses to Conrado’s leap into the cage, no video documentation and no subsequent social media outcry.
We know, however, that Mones was eventually killed and partially eaten by a 1200-pound bear named Scandy. They found his body later that morning. According to zoo officials the bear was playing with the body, tossing it in and out of the water. Scandy, a bear described by officials as “friendly and gentle,” was just doing what was natural and normal for a polar bear and, thus, no retaliatory or punitive action was taken against the animal.
Mones, it should be noted, had been warned repeatedly and he’d willingly entered the bear’s cage. He was, based on the reactions of zoo officials, asking for it. The bear couldn’t be blamed for being a bear. Scandy was just following his instincts. But things are different when a child is involved. The stakes are higher and the consequences more severe.
On May 19, 1987, three young boys broke into the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn after closing time and found their way to the polar bears’ enclosure. Perhaps the boys were in search of a thrill, a test of their budding manhood. Perhaps the boys had just seen the bears’ habitat and it looked enticing, the sort of place to have a nice late night swim. It must have appeared like an oasis of sorts.
We know that two of the boys went into the polar bears’ exhibit. And only one made it out. Eleven-year-old Juan Perez was quickly attacked by one or both of the nine hundred pound bears and dragged back to the bears’ cave as the other boy scrambled to safety.
By the time the police and zoo officials arrived on the scene, the bears had eaten most of Juan’s legs and were fighting over what little remained of his corpse. Unlike with Scandy and Conrado Mones, these bears were subsequently killed in a barrage of shotgun gunfire, in part because they didn’t know if there were other boys still in the cage, and in part because they just didn’t know how else to respond to such horror.
These bears had killed an innocent child, a boy who’d just made a mistake; and this incident would forever scar the history of the Prospect Park Zoo, becoming perhaps at least part of the reason why the zoo would begin to slowly transition to what it is today, a “Children’s Zoo,” where all the apex predators have been relocated and the main attraction are the sea lions and the Hamydrus baboon troop, a place where kids can have “hands on” experiences with mostly harmless animals.
Sometimes those people who put themselves into intimate proximity with predators are innocent children in search of something elusive or simply overly curious. Sometimes these people are adults described as deranged or insane or on drugs; and at least part of the reason for these labels is because it is difficult for us to imagine why anyone possessing all his rational faculties would jump into a cage with a lion or a tiger or a bear (or a silverback gorilla—oh my). We call them innocent, ignorant, irresponsible, crazy or suicidal. We condemn the Cincinnati boy’s parents, calling them criminal or worse. But perhaps the answers are not so easy, the stories not so simple.
On Sept 21, 2012, twenty-five year old David Villalobos leaped from the Wild Asia Monorail at the Bronx zoo sixteen feet down into the paddock of Bashuta, a 400 pound Siberian tiger. David was mauled and dragged around by the tiger, but he wasn’t killed. And when he was eventually rescued and pulled from the cage, he told anyone who would listen that he wasn’t suicidal, that he was instead, “testing his natural fear.”
We condemn that Cincinnati boy’s parents because we cannot condemn the child. On some level we understand why a child would want to climb into that gorilla’s cage. We recognize the lack of natural fear and perhaps even the pull of the animal, the attraction to another world; and we do not condemn it as aberrant behavior. Intuitively, we recognize it as normal. It makes sense that a child would want to cross over because, for them, the boundary between human and animal has yet to be so sharply defined.
For David Villalobos, his leap into the tiger’s cage was a “spiritual thing,” and he claimed he wanted to be “at one with the tiger;” and while these statements may not sound totally rational, what statements of faith, what articulations of spirituality ever sound rational or reasonable? When Daniel survived the night in a lion’s den, was he vilified or mocked as deranged? When he claimed that God shut the mouths of the lions, he was called a hero and made into an archetype of risk and sacrifice in the name of faith.
If we cannot understand or relate to the motivations of anyone who would actually climb into a polar bear’s cage or leap into tiger’s habitat, perhaps on some level we can at least recognize the appeal of the leap and the allure of the animal itself. Maybe we can recognize that boy’s innocent urge to swim in the gorilla’s moat, to exist with an animal in a more intimate way, an animal that seems so like us in many ways. We know the polar bear or the tiger as mascot, icon, cartoon, loving, cute and cuddly; but perhaps the beast is also a possibility of grace, and communion with the sublime. Perhaps on some level, each of us can recognize the urge to leap toward this, or toward the idea that a polar bear represents or even the annihilation that a tiger promises. It’s hard to intellectualize it, but we can feel the pull. Can’t we? If you’ve ever stood on a cliff and felt the urge to leap but not to land, you’ve come close to this feeling.
Even if we don’t want to leap, many of us want to get close to the edge. We want to stand at the zoo fence and peer into the possibility of another harmonious world, and this seems to me to be a uniquely human drive toward the sublime. I think many of us, if we’re honest, believe in something like an animal soul, or a kind of shared spiritual space where humans and animals, even apex predators, can exist in an Eden-like harmony. I think many of us want to be one with a tiger, even if we’re ultimately and reasonably afraid to take the risk and make the leap into the unknown.
“The Tragic but Common History of Zoo Cage Jumpers” is an excerpt from Steven Church’s forthcoming book, One with the Tiger (Soft Skull Press, on sale November 15, 2016)