11 August 2009

Hey, is that a penguin skin floating in the water?

We had been trying our best to have a good time at Taronga Zoo for hours. But after seeing animals roaming relatively free at wildlife sanctuaries in NSW and Queensland, Sydney's Taronga Zoo felt eerie. It felt like a zoo from another time, a darker time; all the animals were separated from each other and kept in small enclosures. Even the birds were in netted aviaries. It was like a living specimen collection, each box with a scientific label; there were no pretensions to "natural habitat." Several adult gorillas were kept in a small concrete enclosure that could never correspond to gorilla territory size, and they didn't seem to have any private areas. One lonely Kodiak bear slowly paced his tiny living space, watching us as we watched him; we moved on, and he kept pacing. The whole philosophy of how the animals lived there felt outdated and wrong.

Not many people had our sense of adventure. Getting to Taronga Zoo from our place means a ferry, and on a cold day, a ferry means the freezing seabreeze I have come to associate with Sydney. We braved the ferry and the drizzly outdoors, and we felt like were the only people in the whole zoo. Alone, our small group (7 brown people and one very tall ginger) talked and wandered the deserted zoo, making our way past the Australian nightlife exhibit, the birds, the elephants, and finally, the aquatic exhibits. The viewing area for humans was underground, allowing a wall-sized window into a depressingly blank underwater world. It was a huge tank, just glass and bright blue water. I'm sure a filtration system hummed in the background, and dead fish were thrown in routinely. The zoo was about to close when the leopard seals came. Enormous, they swayed in the water, pushing their noses down so we could see their whole bodies. It was the most eerie and ominous display I've ever seen in my life. They were just undulating in one spot, looking at us. It felt like they were showing us something...but what? Mesmerizing, hypnotizing, I didn't want to stop watching them. I wondered if the zoo visitors were the only entertainment these terrifying creatures had in their blank blue days.

Reading up on the leopard seal, my terror and fascination has only grown. Their only natural predator is the killer whale. They eat penguins in what now tops my list of "50 Most Awful Ways to Die:" by thrashing the penguin back and forth "until the skin peels away. The remaining carcass is then consumed." Wikipedia states that for leopard seals in the water, there is "a fine line between curiosity and predatory behavior," and although the first known human fatality from a leopard seal was only in 2003, "numerous examples of aggressive behavior, stalking, and attacks on humans had been previously documented."

It's been theorised that mythic stories of mermaids originated from lonely sailor's sighting of seals on far off rocks; the myths say mermaids hypnotised sailors, distracted them, causing them to crash the boats and fall to their (skin-peeled) deaths. At Taronga Zoo, we watched them sway and I felt transfixed. I couldn't stop watching, trying to tell if they were performing, or playing curiously. Honestly, it felt more like they were threatening...predatorily. An announcement over the loudspeakers saved me: Taronga Zoo was closing for the night, and the seals swam away for their evening feed.

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