Warning: I am going to narratively combine two visits to the Tbilisi Zoo into one as I see fit. While this may interrupt the flow of the story and it may confuse weak-minded fools, I’m the author, so take that!
I loved the zoo as a kid. I grew up in Baltimore, which has a fantastic zoo—especially the Children’s zoo section (It has giant plastic lily pads to jump on, slides, and huge birds’ nests so you can pretend to be a baby bird!!). It was an awesome place to visit as a child. I have since learned that the Baltimore Zoo is one of the best zoos in the country! The habitats are, I guess, pretty quality as far as zoos go. I don’t know what else Baltimore has going for it in terms of zoo quality, but I can tell you about the dark side of zoos.
I’ve been listening to Stuff You Should Know, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, and there was a great episode on zoos. I learned the term for a phenomenon I’ve witnessed before, “Zoochosis.”
Two years ago I was at the St. Petersburg Zoo in Russia with friends (Not to be confused with From Russia with Love). While Baltimore has a top-notch Children’s Zoo as its claim to fame, St. Petersburg boasts on plaques around the zoo that “During the 900 day siege and blockade of Leningrad from 1941-1943 the residents of Leningrad did not eat the zoo animals.” Other than not eating the animals during a time of great strife (in which over one million people died), the St. Petersburg Zoo really doesn’t have anything to brag about.
In addition to exhibits such as “Domesticated Goat,” “Pidgeon,” and “House Cat,” the zoo had several exhibits worth of Polar Bears. St. Petersburg had a pair of young Polar cubs and a few adults. In a large habitat filled with toys and a swimming pool (Read: a 200 square foot enclosure with a shallow, dirty pool that had one plastic barrel in it) two cubs slept while their mother (?) paced by the wall. “Paced” isn’t exactly the word I’m looking for. She would walk forward until the corner and then, head raised and swinging, as if she were tasting the air, she would moonwalk back to her point of origin, swinging her head in time with her footsteps. As we watched the bear we realized that it had a few screws loose, at least.
We walked further on, viewing the big cats shortly after feeding time. Some of them had not yet eaten their food and, as such, continued napping while the half-rabbit carcass bled out in the center of their pen. Other cages had sated cats napping and tufts of shredded bunny strewn all over the place. We turned a corner and found another polar bear—possibly the patriarch. He was clearly suffering from zoochosis.
Zoochosis is a mental disorder suffered by the inhabitants of zoos. Basically, it consists of the caged animals engaging in a natural activity, but to excess. It can be, for example, cheetahs grooming themselves until they lose their fur and develop sores, chimpanzees who masturbate furiously, causing themselves physical and sexual harm, or it can be over- or under-eating. Some animals are more prone to it than others—typically the ones that have wide ranges in the wild suffer more strongly than those that have small natural habitats. Social animals are especially at risk. Elephants live in herds with dozens of individuals, but zoos can only support two or three, typically. Many think that elephants should never be kept in zoos for this very reason (plus the enormous range of an elephant in the wild).
The polar bear who was confined to the smallest container was very far gone down the zoochosis path. He paced in a tight ellipse, banging his head on the bars. He’d opened up a wound on his head and was bleeding—not profusely, but noticeably. As the blood ran down from his brow, he continued his angry, crazed circuit (Or, for the wordplay inclined, “his mad, mad circuit”!) worsening his injury (or, for the wordplay inclined, “adding injury to injury”!).
The St. Petersburg Zoo isn’t all tragedy though! After all, the animals weren’t eaten during WWII! We went in the monkey house to discover that one of the exhibits was being cleaned and restocked by zoo employees. What this meant, hilariously, was that the glass enclosures escalated evolutionarily from macaques, to gibbons, to chimps, to a pair of humans. Sadly, that’s the most positive story I have from that zoo. Bright side? The Tbilisi Zoo wasn’t nearly as bad as all that. It’s no Baltimore, though. (Wow. When something makes Baltimore look good, you know you’re pretty far off the beaten path! [Love you, Bawlmer!])
During the Rekindled week, I found myself at the Tbilisi Zoo twice, once by happenstance and once by design. Though the circus was, indeed, closed, Joanne, Marissa, and I stubbornly trekked toward it in search of the caged animals that they two girls had seen the day before. We found a wooden footbridge near an enormous traffic circle that connects Vake and Saburtelo with the rest of the city. Below us lay several animals pacing, sitting, and playing in a few enclosures.
For a lark, we decided that the zoo was the perfect way to kill time before our appointment at the Ministry! And for fifty tetri a head, how could we refuse!? As soon as we got in to the zoo we realized what a spectacular idea it was. I warned the girls about my experience in St. Petersburg, however, the cotton candy (Candy floss, spun sugar) stand just inside the gate erased all apprehensive thoughts of animal safety from our minds.
Immediately, as is often the case, our thoughts turned to moustache possibilities.
Joanne had a moustache photo as well, but she made me promise never to share it with the world. Instead, please enjoy my pensive Fu Man Chu photo!
With sugar coursing through our veins (Sugar and sunshine and happiness, but the latter two had more to do with the company and our joy than with the cotton candy), we began our descent into the zoo proper, wits prepared for the sadness that lay beyond the fences.
The first area we went took us past some bears and the big cats. The bears were one of the worst parts of the zoo. They were so used to people throwing them food that they came right up to their electric fence and began begging/doing tricks for food. We didn’t have any and the bears just sadly looked out at us as we walked away.
The cats seemed a bit less depressed, though they were all pacing. The White Lions and the Regular Lions both had two to a cage, so they were playing and snuggling together. The poor tiger, though, had no friends.
Though we may have wanted to feed bonbons and sweets to the lions, helpful signs posted throughout the zoo warned us of the dangers of feeding the animals.
As we passed the wolves, we were overtaken by a group of Georgian teenagers. I usually have a very high tolerance for childish antics (How could I survive as a teacher otherwise!?), but these kids really pissed me off. They were having a good time (which I don’t begrudge them—we were also having fun, despite the squalor of the animals’ cages) laughing and a-running. When they got to the wolves, they leaned right close to the fence (non-electric) and lured the wolves to the human-animal boundary. As soon as the wolves approached curiously and hopefully, the boy would smack the fence with his palm, startling the animals and provoking snarls of dissatisfaction from the wolves (and from us!). I’m a very kind person, if I may say so, however I wouldn’t have been disappointed to see the cruel boy’s hand bitten off.
Immediately beyond these mid-sized mammals, we found a series of monkey cages, more bears, and, most exciting of all, rides! For one lari we could ride a swinging ship, bumper cars, a merry-go-round, or a ferris wheel! Marissa and I opted for the swinging ship. We fastened ourselves into our own seat at the back of the ship (For maximum terror) and sat tight as the ride slowly, creakily started up. Joanne wandered back from the crocodile viewing window to take some photos of us (I think on Marissa’s camera, because I don’t have any).
The entire endeavor seemed like a risky idea from the get-go. I’ve ridden my fair share of Soviet-Era rides before—in St. Petersburg we discovered Divo Ostrov on Women’s Day (Coincidence?), in Batumi Jay and I braved a beach-front Ferris Wheel, and in Pripyat, Ukraine I walked around a ruined amusement park for a good twenty minutes—but Marissa surely hadn’t and this one had a lot of fear-factor going for it.
A spinning tire powered the ship’s movement, swinging higher and higher with each pendulous arc. We quickly realized that we had bit off more than we could chew as we flew more and more vertically. Early on we’d gotten that sinking feeling in our stomachs (as it turns out, you get that when your internal organs go into free fall!), now that sinking feeling moved into our very souls as we approached and then passed ninety degrees.
I began to use the back of the seat in front of us as a floor when we were at the apex of our journey while Marissa clung to me for dear life. When we thought we couldn’t swing any higher, the ride just kept on going. We passed perpendicularity with the earth and felt ourselves lift out of our seats and thump our thighs against the bar across our laps. Facing imminent death we clung to each other and braced against the wall before us.
Finally, the ride operator shut off the motor and we ground to a halt. Happy to be alive, we descended and made for the bumper cars. Those would prove to be much less terrifying.
Joanne had never ridden bumper cars before, so we eagerly showed her the ropes. By that I mean we chased her down and rammed her with full force!
A few days later we returned to the zoo with Max, Tom, and Yev and we relived some of our favorite moments from Friday. I tried to take more photos of bumper cars, but due to the additional chaos brought by the three new vehicular combatants, they all came out blurry. That said, check it!
The zoo was a lot bigger than we thought and we meandered past the water buffalo, the sad pair of elephants, the zebras, and the ostriches, noting their patchy feathers and, on our second visit, the biggest ostrich-surprise of all.
Warning, the following video contains material inappropriate for children, the elderly, those with heart conditions or pregnancy, and Joanne. The 00:52 mark has a nice shot of what I’m talking about.
As we left the ungulates and ostriches behind, we happened upon a curious ride that we couldn’t figure out. Several Georgians came out, dizzy and confused. We asked them, “How was it?” and a girl replied breathlessly, “Cool!” Intrigued, we asked the carnie in charge what happened in the ride. He told me in Russian, “There are stars and moons. It is the Cosmos!!!” How could we say no?
When the Georgians were riding it, we had seen a rotating room. The entire room rotated. We imagined that they were strapped in to some seats so as not to break their happiness but as the man locked us in and removed the drawbridge, we realized that the two benches in the room had no buckles, belts, harnesses, or safety features of any kind. Having narrowly escaped death at the hands of a swinging ship, Marissa and I had walked right back into the Grim Reaper’s cold embrace in the Cosmos.
As it turns out, the room does indeed rotate, but the benches stay still. This really fucks with your head and your internal balance mechanisms. While the room spins around you, you feel like you are being turned upside down, and yet you aren’t falling. I recall shouting out warnings as Marissa and Joanne fell off the bench into the cosmos, only to realize that they were fine and that I just thought they were upside down.
If you stood up and rotated your torso in the direction the room spun, you got this sinking feeling that you were upside down. If you rotated against the direction of the spinning room, you fell over instantly. It was mildly nauseating and extremely confusing.
When the ride was over, the carnie let us ride it again for free! When the second ride ended he refused to lower the drawbridge, insisting, “No, no! You go again!” Third time’s the charm, right? In this case, that’s true IFF by charm we mean “time you womit.” We escaped.
We touted this ride to the others all weekend until Monday afternoon when we finally returned to the zoo with the other guys. As a birthday surprise, we treated Yev to a trip to the cosmos! Tom joined him and the two came out grinning but confused. They had no idea what to expect when we put them in that steel trap, but I think they enjoyed it. Further enjoyment was to be had with cotton candy as the moustache mood struck everyone else all at once!
The other nice thing about our second trip to the zoo was that we stopped in at Baskin’ Robbins! There’s an alleged Baskin’ Robbins in the zoo! We saw it on Friday, but only enjoyed it on Monday. As we arrived at the zoo, we stood around looking for Max and Tom. Max called me up and, in a menacing the-call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house way asked if Joanne had potatoes under that gray hat of hers and pointed out the Yev looked like a dick in his black pants. We found Max and Tom waiting inside the ice cream shop, having already consumed their frozen goodness. Verdict: Baskin’ Robbins it was not, but it sure was a nice tasty treat!
So that’s all for the zoo. Two trips, a total of seven lari, tops. That includes cotton candy, four rides, two days of admission, and wonderful, lasting memories. What a glorious weekend that was. Stay tuned for even further glory as the stories continue to roll on in!