Yesterday my girlfriend and I went to the Oregon Zoo for a Valentine’s Day date. It was great! I’d recommend going on a weekday, as one does not have to compete with crowds, and we got a good long look at several of the animals. At the end of it, I was giddy. Animals are amazing, and being exposed to so much tremendous biology in a single afternoon was a great experience. Here are a few things I learned.
-Sea Lions are huge. Seriously. You know that because they’re an apex predator and they have “lion” right in their name, but when you seem them up close it’s sort of eye-popping how large and graceful they are. They also make a noise that’s kind of a bark-y roar-y sound.
-Bats can be beautiful. People think of bats as being creepy (like Dracula) or kind of dark and badass (like Batman) but one doesn’t really think of them as beautiful. But they are. Bats don’t glide- they are the only mammal to truly fly, and they do it well. Their movement is graceful and precise, and they are every bit as inspiring as birds.
–Baby elephants are cute. If you don’t think so, then you are probably one of those serial killers who physically lacks a sense of empathy.
-Everybody poops. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera famously characterized kitsch as the denial of shit. If that’s the case, than the zoo is one of the least kitschy places one can visit, as the reality of excrement is vividly apparent. But that’s okay! Pooping does not make you less cool. Everyone does it. Even awesome animals like rhinos.
-Naked mole rats are actually quite small. They are more like naked mole mice.
-There’s a species of gazelle that eats vegetation while standing on its hind legs. It’s called a gerenuk and it’s really weird to watch it not fall over.
-Male lions are not actually all that king-of-beast-y. They don’t really hunt (the lionesses do) and they sleep a lot. Nevertheless, we got to see a male sitting on a rock with his mane blowing in the wind looking all Lion King and stuff. It was cool. Lions at least get style points.
-Bald eagles like fish. We saw America’s national bird with a fish in its talons tearing it apart with its beak. It was amazing to watch such an up-close example of predation, and it also made me happy that Benjamin Franklin didn’t get his way about making the turkey our national symbol.
-African wild dogs have adorable ears. They’re big and fuzzy.
-Mammals are awesome. They can do all kinds of things. Water stuff? We have sea lions, otters, and polar bears. Flying stuff? All kinds of bats. Climbing stuff? Check out those monkeys. Running stuff? You can’t beat the cheetah. Digging stuff? Naked mole rats, actual moles, and various rabbits have that covered. Mammals are amazing in their diversity and complexity. They’re like a G.I. Joe team where all the members have a niche that they’re good at. I’m proud to be a mammal. It’s good company.
-Hippos are something you should fear. They might seem all big and cute, but really they are gigantic bags of pure anger.
–Caracals are one of my new favorite cat types. They have tufts on their ears and can jump really high to hunt birds.
-We live in an extraordinary world. It’s a world filled with monkeys and tigers and iridescent birds. It’s mind boggling, diverse, and wonderful. Nature should hold you in stunned awe. Evolution has given us millions upon millions of co-residents of Earth, and seeing even a tiny sampling of them can make for an extraordinary afternoon.