Guy the Gorilla, photographed by Wolf Suschitzky. Almost certainly in breach of copyright.
BELOVED GIRAFFE AT ZOO ON THE MEND reads the headline on the Boston Globe website. (The subheading is only slightly less heartwarming: "Overcomes urinary obstruction, but risky surgery still possible". My invariable advice to young journalists is, Avoid urine in headlines.)
Leaving aside the details of his condition, let's think about Beau the giraffe's status: beloved. Zoo animals are quite often beloved — Knut the polar bear, Guy the gorilla, any number of pandas, and so on all the way back to Jumbo the elephant and Obaysch the hippo in Victoria's reign. What does that mean? That their names appear in the media, that children clamour to see them, or at any rate parents assume they're who the children want to see, that their photograph is taken often, and any health problem becomes a minor public drama. It is a shallow sort of love, devoid of intimacy, knowledge, real consideration. When Jumbo was sold to P. T. Barnum in 1882, the public was incensed (letters to the press, angry leading articles, a popular song) that he was being removed from his "little wife", Alice, though the pair had never even shared quarters.
Some zoo animals are regarded with benevolent indifference; they are never hated. Most entertainments have their villain: even among clowns at the circus there'll be one who is less likeable, or more dislikeable. But zoos are all about positive feeling. Nobody boos the tigers or the gibbons; at worst you'll experience a shudder at something invertebrate. The closest thing to a villain is us — or rather, not us, we're nice people, but them, those other people who are not so kind to animals: the people the signs are aimed at, who wake the animals in the nocturnal house, howl at the monkeys and chuck litter in the hippos' pool; and the people who do all that logging and poaching that endangers species. Last time I was at the Bronx Zoo, a display about the evils of tiger-poaching included a Land Rover bearing the logo "Evil Incorporated".
I've encountered similar attitudes outside zoos: the park ranger at Haggerston who, haranguing me after my dog killed a squirrel, said "I love everything in nature." (I didn't have the nerve to ask her if that included slugs, rats, and plague bacilli, but let's assume for the sake of argument that I did and she looked pretty foolish.) I'm not recommending that we hate animals; but that sort of worldview — where every species pleases, and only man is vile — is too simplistic to be healthy; it stops you knowing anything. Owning a dog has extinguished in me whatever there was of the dog-lover: I'm too aware now of dogs as individuals, some pleasant, some not.
It's not as if being beloved does animals any good. Knut, as I've mentioned before, was reportedly warped by adulation into a narcissistic psychopath with severe sexual dysfunction; he drowned in his pool, aged four, while suffering encephalitis. Jumbo suffered fits of insanity, which is why they sold him to Barnum. Loving something, or someone, is fine. It's not a substitute for thinking about them.