Meet Josh Newell (on right), a 35 year old bartender that recently garnered attention by jumping the barriers at the Columbus Zoo so that he could videotape himself petting the cougars. The hapless bartender then uploaded the video to YouTube to share with the world (and ultimately the police) his shining “Cougar Love” moment in the sun. Congratulations, Josh! This chain of inappropriate behaviors and complete inability to predict the consequences of your actions has earned you the crown of this week’s “Topic Queen” on Tales From The Wetsuit.
While he is not alone in his trespassing ways, he certainly showed a stunning lack of critical thinking by providing indisputable evidence that he broke the law… and all just to pet some “kitties”. This, among other transgressions I will speak of shortly, caused me to ponder the correlation between “Behind the Scenes” trespassers and Social Darwinism. Their lack of impulse control is now beginning to have social and legal consequences as there is now a precedent set for zoos/aquariums prosecuting the interlopers. Not to mention that jumping into an enclosure with a primate or large cat can have obvious physical consequences, primarily you taking your meals through a straw for the rest of your life. So, why do they do it? What is the belief or thought process, paired with a zoo/aquarium visit, that supports decisions that culminate in (at best) prosecution or (at worst) being mauled to death?
According to Josh, the budding behaviorist in classy aviators, he did it because the cougars “liked it” and the purring totally proved that. I think we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief that Josh isn’t in charge of the cougars’ training program criteria, enrichment, or safety protocols (SOPS). Bless your heart, Josh.
Bless your insipid, take no accountability, entitled little heart. Make better choices, sweetie.
Back to the topic, let’s examine the evidence.
Evidence, Exhibit #A: Every single day, we zoo professionals hear questions or witness behaviors that make us feel like we are taking crazy pills. For example, “Will it bite me?” or guests just flat out reaching for an animal’s face without asking you a thing. I grew up in a rural area full of horses, cattle, domestics, and I have a wonderful aunt that raises macaws. I learned early, really early, that facial touching = biting. Clearly, a vast majority of visitors never learned those lessons from their pet hamster. This is the preliminary cognitive dissonance we observe daily in our guests and a warning of their potential for hijinks.
Instinctively, guests know that animal you are holding is capable of biting. That kinkajou has a mouth, it has teeth, it has eyes, and it doesn’t know you from a can of paint. They know it’s best for them to not reach out impulsively (for them and the animal) but they want to touch more than they want to resist the urge. Cognitive dissonance: two ideals that are in direct battle with one another. There are many places on this plane of existence that your fingers don’t belong, like light sockets and an animal’s face. ANY animal’s face. Want proof? How did you do the last time you had to give yourself eye drops and hold your own lid up? Would you allow another person, a perfect stranger even, to walk up and rub your cheek and touch your mouth? The sheer thought of it makes my mind feel as though it is coming loose from its tethers. Touch my face uninvited and you just bought me an express ticket to Crazy Town. P.S. I’m taking you with me.
Evidence, Exhibit #B: The general public’s overall lack of impulse control is their insistence on placing their own progeny in an animal enclosure. Look, ya’ll. It wasn’t awesome when Michael Jackson dangled a baby over a balcony and it isn’t awesome when you dangle them over our shark pools. True story, a father did that at an aquarium I used to work at. He placed his two year old along the perimeter so that she could reach in and pat the water in our nurse shark pool. Shark responds to the stimulus, swims over in that lackadaisical way only nurse sharks can, and bites the child just below her thumb. Their story? The nurse shark leapt out of the water and over the wall, Sharknado-style, attacking their cherub as they innocently stood there. Of course, they never touched the water. Luckily, we had many witnesses to the contrary. Anybody who has ever spent a hot second in the presence of a nurse shark is, at this very moment, laughing in disbelief. “Nurse sharks” and “leaping” don’t belong in the same sentence. Ever.
Another example is a mother who recently dangled her child over a cheetah enclosure in Cleveland, promptly dropping him when her other child knocked her off balance. She is facing potential child endangerment charges.
Parenting: You’re doing it all wrong.
I know what you are thinking, that these people are just stupid. Troglodytes that would eat paint chips if someone told them to and couldn’t negotiate their way out of a wet paper bag. Not true.
Evidence, Exhibit #C: A guest’s ability to Macgyver their way into areas that are off limits with the stealth and cunning of James Bond quality, only to claim “stupidity” when they are caught. When I go to the grocery store there are several doors that say, “Employees Only”. I really want to go get a gallon of milk with a later expiration date, I know that milk is back there just waiting for me to claim its calcium goodness. However, I ask myself, “Self, are you an employee here? That sign says only employees can go through that door.”
“Why no, self, you are not an employee here. Better go find one that can go back there since I can’t.”
Reading Comprehension and Acceptance of Boundaries. It’s a beautiful thing.
However, zoo and aquarium professionals witness violations of this straightforward concept on a daily basis. Guests jump fences, manage to circumvent locked doors, morph into gelatinous octopi to squeeze through a six inch crack, and lose all ability to read any sign in any language. Signs with just pictures don’t even work. Inevitably when you find them, chasing them down while calling out (they often lose their ability to hear as well once they breach the barriers) they will stare at you dumbfounded. Their expressions are a mixture of mock disbelief (Who? ME?), annoyance (She can’t be speaking to ME), and then anger (How was I supposed to know I couldn’t be here!).
This brings me back to our old pal, Josh Newell. Joshie told news reporters, “The zoo calls me an idiot for jumping their fences and touching the cougers but they are the idiots. It was so easy for me to jump that fence and get back there so, really, it’s kinda their fault.” Now that is some stellar reasoning, friends and neighbors. You didn’t work hard enough to keep me out so I got in, like a criminal does. Seems like a legitimate argument…if you’re flaming moron from Planet Jackwagon.
Ironically, these are the same people that can’t find a bathroom with a park map, a guide dog, and a fresh set of directions given to them every 15 feet. This is my interpretation of what I look like when I find unwanted guests trespassing behind the scenes. First, the guests…
And then, there is me….
I present these long observed guest behaviors as evidence before you that “Zoo Crashers” aka trespassers have entered the realm of Social Darwinism. Their behavior now carries the joys of fines, prosecution, and in some very sad cases even death. We could build wildly high barriers to keep you and Josh Newell out or make sure that you were kept so far away that you would need binoculars to see the animals. But, that kind of defeats the purpose of zoos and aquariums. We want you to see them and experience what it’s like to observe a living, breathing animal.
Are you still asking why is it a big deal for guests to break into back areas or animal enclosures? Barring that you were asked not to by the people that work there, some of these animals have training programs that include free contact and some don’t. However, even with the ones that do participate in free contact (trainers touch with no barrier between trainer and animal) there are established boundaries. We work very hard and methodically with approximations, reinforcement, and behavioral plans to establish a safe and proper communication with animals; a relationship is built on trust and respect for each other as beings. When you jump in with bears, wolves, lions, apes, or cheetahs unannounced you have just walked into the boardroom meeting with zero plan or ability to communicate above a primal level. They don’t know why you are there, what you are up to, or when you are leaving. You are a curiosity or, even worse, a threat.
I, for one, am thrilled that zoos and aquariums are beginning to deliver consequences through the law and court systems. These people chose their actions and in turn they chose the consequences, ergo Social Darwinism. They weed themselves out of polite society with these choices, destined to be labeled “dunces”. They lose money over it (the ultimate punishment) and now have to check that little box, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” Showing a lack of impulse control and poor decision making skills does not present you as quality employee.
So, dear readers, the next time you feel that urge to stick your fingers into an animal enclosure or “wander” behind the scenes…Don’t. Practice your dark arts elsewhere and go buy a funnel cake. Take a walk on the wild side and eat one of those “turkey” legs (*cough*… emu). That should satiate any desire you have to live life on the edge as your sugar and cholesterol levels will reach critical mass. And if you do stick your fingers where they don’t belong? Animals are not afraid to retort.
Until next time, Hugs and Fishes, ya’ll!