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The Cruelest Month, Part 5: At the Zoo

I was dreading April 27 this year because it was doubly momentous. The day marked the 15th anniversary of the death of Jennifer, my first wife and the mother of my biological children. The day also marked the first anniversary of the death of Nancy, Jen's only sister, my second wife, and the mother of my three stepchildren. 

My eldest child, Hannah, had flown in from New York City for the week, which meant all five kids were together with me under one roof, along with our three dogs and one cat: that's a lot of living beings gathered at the site of a great loss. I asked Jack and Ella, my college-age twins, to take the day off from their jobs, and they agreed. I didn't want to make a big ceremonial thing out of the day, partly because that's a surefire way to make things unpleasant, but mainly because this is not the kind of family that's inclined towards cathartic public displays of emotion. Fortunately, Ella suggested that we all go to the zoo—an out-of-left-field choice—and we all agreed. It sounded like a nice, neutral thing to do on its face, the spring weather was lovely, and the zoo seemed fairly pandemic-safe, considering that a sizable portion of the populace had been vaccinated against Covid-19 and it was not as much of a risk outdoors anyway.

Going to the zoo turned out to be exactly the right choice for the family. I somewhat dreaded it at first, as I've not been in good physical shape recently—I've had back problems, possibly related to stress, injurious physical activity, and long periods of sedentary lifestyle during the shut-in phase. But three hours of walking about the Cincinnati Zoo loosened me up, and not only did I feel fine at the zoo, I felt better the next day than I had in some time. And the zoo itself was perfect meditation material. We walked the length of the grounds, visiting all the major exhibits, and each was delightful in its own way.

There's also something inherently calming about looking at animals if you're in an introspective and emotionally vulnerable state. For whatever reason, I've found myself becoming more tightly bonded to our pets, particularly our three dogs. There are times when, looking into their eyes, I cease to think of them as canines, or even lower mammals, and instead think of them as humans in fur suits that have more limited cognitive abilities. There is, as many have noted, an innate nobility to a dog's face, even an outwardly comical dog. In repose, they can seem to have glimmers of self-awareness, even a meditative quality, or something that can seem from certain angles like tragic self-awareness. 

Most of the animals at the zoo that day struck me as having a bit of those same qualities. Was I anthropomorphizing them?  For sure. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. But I'm not the first person to have done that, and anyway, I needed to feel that connection, and I don't think I was imagining an affinity, or an understanding. 

I saw myself in them: in the lions, the tigers, the monkeys, the hippos, and the gorillas, of course—one should expect to see oneself in the types of animals that are the subject of children's books and movies, and models for stuffed animals. But I also saw myself in the birds, turtles, fish, and reptiles. Even in the alligators, who seemed from certain vantage points to be smiling at a private thought—perhaps a species memory of swimming alongside a plesiosaur tens of millions of years ago. 

All these creatures have also experienced loss. The loss of a parent, the loss of a child, the loss of a fellow pack member. The loss of an entire epoch. 

Animals grieve, too. We know this from observing our pets reacting to the deaths of other pets, or the death of a human in the household, or in their orbit. Our beagle Toby used to sleep in bed with me and Nancy—I used to joke that he was her man before I was her man—and for a while after Nancy's death, he stopped coming into the bedroom. But then he started doing it again, and now I am rarely without Toby. In fact, he's snoring behind me on the bed as I write this. 

How old are the alligators? How old are the turtles? The reptiles? The gorillas? How many deaths have they witnessed? How much have they grieved? 

Grief isn't only triggered by a death. It can be triggered by a loss of some other kind: being taken from one zoo and moved to another, or being taken from the wild and placed in captivity. Or trying to conceive a child and thinking you've succeeded only to lose it during gestation or soon after birth. 

These animals have been through a lot.  

We went to the grandparents' house after that and had a lovely dinner of grilled vegetables, barbecued spareribs, and cheese and crackers. We finished with ice cream. That night I drifted off to sleep with a full belly, Toby snoring beside me.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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