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This Zoo Trip Was Different!

Ann DeFrange Published: May 27, 1984

The Primate Building at the Oklahoma City Zoo is the place where man and monkey meet to contemplate their genetic histories.

There, through barred windows, they peer at one another and ponder their origins and their evolutions. Brooding about their likely brotherhood, they twist their faces into grimaces, curl their lips into ferocious snarls, growl menacingly and jump around in foolish postures.

But that's just the people. The apes are more dignified.

So here I sit on the wrong side of the bars. I've got a suit. I've got my own cage. I've got a perfect view of people making faces at the apes making faces at the people.

All I have to do is sit here, wait for the bananas to be served, wave once in a while and try to remember what the people do so I can take notes later.

It's a smelly job, but somebody has to do it.

Visitors are arriving to see the animals. I've fretted about my ethical responsibilities in this assignment.

If I strive for authenticity, will some observant youngster believe for the rest of his life that gorillas have zippers down their backs?

If I burlesque the whole routine, will children go back to school Monday morning and tell their friends that the zoo hires stand-ins on weekends and if you can't trust a gorilla, how do you know the aardvarks are real?

A group of Cub Scouts approaches my cage, pressing their little noses against the glass.

"It's a man!" one says.

"It's a gorilla!" another protests.

"It's a man!" he repeats, and shoves his fellow pack member.

"It's a gorilla!" and slugs back.

My fellow apes and I watch disdainfully. This is a civilized species?

It's settled when one perceptive little snit shouts, "It's a man!

Gorillas don't wear tennis shoes."

Ah, well, the tennis shoes.

To be a gorilla, first you have to have an outfit. This one's the best available at the costume shop, complete with mean-looking rubber teeth. "If it's too long," the clerk at the shop advised, "just fold the feet under with a rubber band."

It's not the feet. It's that where the waistline would be, if gorillas had waistlines, is somewhere in the area of my knees. It's that I can't breathe in the gorilla head and realize now why apes make those funny noises.

It's that, just like at home when company comes for the weekend, someone has to sleep on the couch, and when I made my reservation for a cage, I displaced one of the local residents.

No problem, the keeper said, he'll just go into a holding cage. No problem to us, maybe, but as I crawl through the door onto the cage floor and look up, glowering down on me is Mkubwa, a gigantic gorilla.

He is not happy.

Mkubwa, apparently, is not known for his sanitary habits. "Any advice?" I beseech the keeper, himself clad in high rubber boots. He smirks, "Don't try any fancy sliding around in there." Though he had hosed down the cage in anticipation of my visit, it is indeed slippery.

I try some fancy sliding around and land on my gorilla bum. On go the tennis shoes.

Actually, even before the outfit, you have to have your shots.

Soon after we made plans for this project, a zoo staff member called. "We're really excited about having you out here," she said, "but you have to come out and have a TB test."

Great joke, I thought, and chuckled appreciatively, making a callous reference to whether they wanted me to take a herpes test. Trying to recover my lapse into bad taste, I noted how thoughtful they were to care whether I got germs from the animals.

Wronnng, she said. Gorillas are particularly susceptible to TB, and I might give them germs.

So I had to be taken to the vet.

I won't knock it. The doctor kept her appointment precisely on time, and there was no one in the waiting room except myself and a macaw.

The Cub Scouts, having determined that the tread on my toes identifies me as fair game, are lined up in front of the cage chanting, "Fake! Fake! Fake!"

One of them sticks out his tongue. I resist an urge toward child discipline with a notedly adult gesture. I don't want to ruin the apes' reputations.

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