Going to the zoo

by Gautam Raja

Out here on the western wing of the United States, living as we do within reach of Hollywood (the industry, not the city), famous entertainers feature a lot in the local press. But in the last few weeks, we’ve been following two very different stars: Shamu and P-22.

Shamu is, of course, a concept rather than an individual—a rolling roster of Orcinus orca that performs at SeaWorld, a couple of hours away in San Deigo. On March 17, Joel Manby, president and CEO of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, wrote an article in the Los Angeles Times titled ‘The Last SeaWorld Orcas’. In it, he announced the end of orca breeding in the park, as well as the “phasing out” of theatrical orca shows.

He didn’t mention it, but follow-up reports said the tide of public opinion was turned by the 2013 documentary Blackfish. Though SeaWorld has a defence on its website titled ‘The Truth about Blackfish‘, it seems the moral highground is not to be found in a large swimming pool with whales leaping out of it for human entertainment.

The other star, P-22, is also a mammal, but furry and land-dwelling. He’s male mountain lion who currently lives in LA’s Griffith Park, a 4,310 acre wilderness in the middle of the city. In August 2015, LA was saddened by the death of his kin P-32 who managed to cross the 101 freeway in April, but was killed trying to cross the north-south 5 freeway. (A successful crossing would have got him into a huge contiguous wilderness area.)

P-22 is a freeway crosser as well. He’s believed to have been born in the Santa Monica mountains, so had to cross the 405 and the 101 freeways to get to the park—these are roads that are a total of 10 to 12 lanes wide, and never free of traffic. Though he suffered mange for a while, he’s now a seriously good-looking chap, and there are several majestic photos of him and his liquid, alert eyes, including one of him in front of the Hollywood sign.

But it was the story of the koala that got to me. The LA Zoo is in Griffith Park, and apparently P-22 got in and grabbed a one of the Australian eucalyptus eaters, killing it. Reading about it brought a lump to my throat. But not for the koala.

It was for P-22, and the thought of this mountain lion wandering through a darkened zoo, and grabbing something that resembles food—a creature from 12,000km away. (Then, and this is where my imagination took over, he spits it with a feline “yuck” because it tastes like eucalyptus.) The LA Zoo might well have asked for the relocation or even killing of this visitor, but instead issued a mild “Please do not feed on the animals” by bringing inside all creatures at risk from P-22’s nights at the zoo.

The story made me think of the strangeness of P-22’s world, even though he’s geographically in the same location his family has been for thousands of years. He’s bounded by freeways on all sides and there are no females in his patch, so he’s going to have to travel soon, and make one of those terrible road crossings.

SeaWorld’s orcas meanwhile, have no crossings to make. They were all born in captivity, and cannot, says SeaWorld, survive in the wild. “The real enemies of wildlife,” writes Manby in his article mentioned earlier, “are poaching, pollution, unsustainable human development and man-made disasters such as oil spills—not zoos and aquariums.”

Depending on how bad that koala tasted, P-22 might not agree.

First published in Gulf News, March 29, 2016