Lions and Tigers and Saying Goodbye

First posted March 29, 2014


Nicole and Mikhail (Nikki and Mikki) were born, all black and orange stripes, on Halloween 1998 at a zoo in Michigan. The Oregon Zoo has a large and very popular camp program, accepting kids all the way from four to fourteen. Most of the camp levels are named after animals in the zoo’s collection: penguin, tiger, giraffe, rhino, otter, cougar. I worked in Tiger Camp with kids going into the first grade. For a while, we quietly called our classroom the Bengal Lounge (even though Nikki and Mikki are Amur, not Bengal tigers. Those distinctions were important to us at zoo camp).

It took me a long time to get my job at OZ. My college-era interview skills were truly, comically terrible, and it wasn’t until my third summer that I landed a job as a sub, which led to three more full-time summers and a year-round position working in the overnight program. With the possible exception of graduate school, I’ve never spent so much time pursuing something. But from the very first second of my first round of interviewing, I knew I would love working in that place, with those people. And I did.

Working as a scholar in critical animal studies, I come up against critiques of zoos all the time, and my feelings about zoos are complicated. I worked in education positions at another zoo and an aquarium after OZ, and while both of them were fine, I found each of them insufficiently focused on conservation education. What’s more, the culture of those two institutions was such that I never really learned much of anything about the animals as individuals. At OZ, it was a point of importance and pride to really know these animals. Many of the camp staff members had gone through the Zoo Teen program, and some of the staff had even been camp kids themselves. These people had spent years – sometimes a decade or more – around these animals, and as a result we didn’t just have facts about them. We had stories about Akim the giraffe, Conrad the polar bear, Nikki and Mikki. We knew their names. We could tell them apart. And not just charismatic megafauna, either. I’ve forgotten them now, but I remember making a point to learn the names of a pair of recently acquired Egyptian spiny mice. We introduced these animals, told their stories, shared their names with the kids in our care, and it really did seem to make a difference. More than once I’ve (unintentionally, but, I hope, productively) made a first grader cry with the information that Amur tigers are endangered, that there’s a possibility of a world without creatures like Nikki.

My friend and colleague, Amanda, who taught me nearly everything I know about teaching kids about animals, described this sense of intimacy beautifully in a Facebook post:

“It continues to amaze me how special it is that while we spent thousands of hours educating nearby, we were growing to know magnificent animals by name, personality, and behaviors. They are/were our colleagues in education as much as anyone. That is so poignant to me and shapes all that I believe about the animal kingdom, zoos, and conservation. Nikki was pretty special in my heart. Hugs, dears.”

As it happens, I was talking about the OZ tigers earlier on the day Amanda posted this. Nikki and Mikki came up because someone asked me what my essay in postmedieval was about. I always talk about the OZ tigers when I’m asked about that article, because even though I don’t mention them or the zoo at all in the paper itself, they were crucial to my thinking about it. My paper is about the sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, an artist working in the thirteenth century. Villard drew a lot of things – architecture, faces, wild men, insects, and a cat cleaning itself. One of his most controversial drawings, however, is this one of a lion, which is accompanied by the caption “contrefais al vif” – drawn from life.


Scholars have argued for a long time over whether or not Villard actually drew this image. After all, it doesn’t hugely resemble what we all “know” lions to actually look like, especially when compared to the accuracy of Villard’s other images. I chart an alternate path through this controversy, arguing that Villard’s lions represent a moment of encounter with a dangerous object, a strange, ultimately unknowable, predatory other. Although I never put it this way in my piece (and maybe I should have), I’m really arguing that Villard’s drawing is of what it feels like to be near a predatory cat, something that -thanks to Nicole – I know a little bit about.

Camp starts early during the summer, and when I was working at the zoo I would arrive around 7am. I loved the zoo in the morning. The grounds weren’t open yet, so there was a sense of having the place just to us, the staff. The animals are also generally most active in the morning. Some days I’d stop for a meditative moment to watch Gus and Julius, our Stellar Sea Lions, dive and surface, breaking the stillness with their loud exhalations. Other mornings I’d pause in front of the gibbons, watching them swing around on unbelievably long arms (longer by far than their legs) and listening to them scream at each other in their characteristically climactic way. But I never missed walking by Nikki and Mikki, as their horseshoe-shaped enclosure was on the way from the admin building to our classroom. On many of these mornings Nikki or Mikki – sometimes both – would watch me as I walked around the long perimeter of their home. This focused attention from a predator never failed to raise the hair on my neck, and I know I wasn’t alone. I’ve heard other camp staff talk about this same feeling. Years later, Villard’s lion – with its fiercely intelligent face and direct gaze – powerfully evoked a sense memory in me of crisp summer mornings and the goosebumps that come from being potentially prey. I could never have written the essay I did – really, I wouldn’t be doing any of the work I’m doing now – without the years I spent around those extraordinary, individual animals.

Anyway, zoos are complicated, the relationships between humans and animals are complicated, and I don’t pretend that even the Oregon Zoo of my rosy-hued memory is without some darkness and injustice. There’s a lot of magical thinking in this blog post, and I understand that. But I nevertheless feel a need, however clumsily, to say this: thank you, Nicole. Thank you for being alive, for the moments of charged intimacy and uneasy eye contact, for informing my academic work and meaning so much to so many first graders. It could very well be that my feelings about you aren’t important at all to anyone else, but here they are. You mattered to me. I remember you, and always will. You are missed.

My dear friend Kathayoon Khalil, a zoo evaluator and PhD candidate at Stanford, posted an article on Slate about her own experience at OZ. It’s beautiful and frank and well worth your time. 

Haylie Swenson