I’ll never forget the thrill of my first encounter with Max and the events that occurred on the night he wore his wolf suit “and made mischief of one kind and another.” Here was a man—I speak of course, of author Maurice Sendak—who understood the importance, the absolute necessity, of wildness. His characters crossed the boundary between civilization and wild, untamed nature without apology. They did this because Maurice knew that, despite our best efforts to tame ourselves and the world around us, sometimes the best part of us is the part that is free.
Sendak departed this Earth on May 8, hopefully having imparted a healthy respect and craving for the wild, however you define it. He reminded us that childhood is more complicated than we remember it to be, that cavorting wildly, willfully, freely is sometimes essential.
It isn’t often that I say anything without so much as the barest hint of snark, but rest in peace fellow id and storyteller. In honor of your memory, I hope we can also remember that our desire to fling ourselves into nature—to adopt for ourselves its wild ways—requires respect. We cannot be the kings and queens of all things wild and simultaneously enslave them in pitiful puddles for our own amusement. The latter description is in obvious reference to this week’s cover story about the Morro Bay Aquarium.
“But think of the children,” the aquarium’s apologists (like Mayor Bill Yates) will insist, incapable of mounting a better argument in defense of the animals’ subpar living conditions. And I am. I just don’t happen to think that patronizing an establishment that sells bumper stickers proclaiming “a woman’s place is the mall” is the most responsible decision when you have an impressionable child in tow. Of course children are fond of the notion of confining exotic animals to what amounts to a bathtub. I myself once tried to keep a giraffe in my backyard with assistance from the vet who tended to our dogs and cats. Fortunately, I was told “No.” Somehow, somewhere along the way the appropriate authorities failed to tell the Tylers, the facility’s owners, “no.” And animals are suffering because of it.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m in favor of doing just about anything if it’ll make a buck, and I’m sure that being able to boast that your town has an aquarium doesn’t exactly hurt when your tourism wonks are printing out shiny new brochures. I’ll bet the folks of yesteryear thought much the same way about witch hunts, public stonings, and gladiators brawling to the death for a roaring blood-thirsty crowd. And there’s a good chance children cheered on the carnage with the same enthusiasm they now exhibit when trying to convince a seal to smack its ass for sardines. All while wallowing in a container the size of a hot tub swimming in endless sad, hopeless circles. Actually, I take that back. The aquarium was cited for having only 19 inches of water at one point. No self-respecting hot tub would have just 19 inches of water.
I have many issues with this place—including the fact that the Tylers (owners Dean and Bertha) and the aquarium manager, John Alcorn, seem to think sufficient medical care for a dog or cat is also good enough for a seal—and I don’t think seals are in the habit of coughing up furballs.
Mayor Yates, and every other city employee who has pledged support in defense of this “rehabilitation” center—all but one of their seals and sea lions were born in captivity, so I’m questioning whether the “rehabilitation” is just a show come tax season—is complicit in sacrificing the health and well-being of animals to fill city coffers with tourism dollars. When the only argument you can dredge up in defense of an institution is that “it is what it is” (to quote Yates and others) you haven’t made much of a case for yourself.
“Your honor, it is what it is. I rest my case.” I can’t see a judge being terribly impressed by that lack of reasoning, and neither should you. Nothing progressive or good ever came out of “it is what it is.” We didn’t put a man on the moon on the strength of “it is what it is.” Hell, if that’s the best we as humans can accomplish then we might as well throw in the towel right now, collectively kiss off the wilderness, cease innovating, stop looking for cures and developing new technologies. Maybe it is what it is. Or maybe we deserve better than city leaders who shrug their shoulders and say “it is what it is, and if we can make a buck off it, so much the better.” Besides, kids love it, and they’re a fine judge of suitable living conditions for marine mammals.
And this goes all the way to the top. What really got me about this whole scene is that our county’s animal services director essentially apologizes to people who complain to him about the facility, saying the aquarium, sadly, complies with laws. Sadly complies? What’s sadly is that our lawmakers are saying “it is what it is” with their silence on this issue. I can just imagine our elected officials at all levels filing through, seeing the flippers and whiskers and liquid eyes, and shrugging, indicating their hands are tied. And the sea lions will probably flap and slap because they think they’re getting another fish, when they’re really getting what they’ve collectively been getting for years: Nothing.
Personally I’d rather say “it can and should be better. We can and should do better.” And I think Maurice would agree with me on that. ∆
Shredder dreads dead seals by the Morro Bay shore. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.