“With man gone, will there be hope for gorilla?”

Daniel Quinn wrote these words in his thought-provoking novel Ishmael, articulated through a philosophical gorilla named Ishmael. Ishmael talks of man’s seemingly indefatigable efforts to destroy not only ourselves but take every species down with us.

I assure you I am not encouraging you to go hug a tree or anything, but I would encourage you to read the book. Starting it, I couldn’t help but picture Ishmael as The Beast from X-Men – I mean, it’s a talking gorilla. Paint him blue and the resemblance is just uncanny. The further along I read, however, I was reminded of Willie B.

If you were a kid living in Georgia in the 90s, as I was, there was a good chance you went to Zoo Atlanta and saw Willie B. I had a poster of him that was given to me at a minor league soccer game.

The team is the Atlanta Silverbacks, in honor of Willie B., who fathered five silverbacks at the zoo. He died in 2000 at the age of 39. For nearly 30 years he was kept in a deplorable isolation bunker until he was put on display in 1988. We’ll get back to Willie B. in a minute, but the reason I think about any of this at all recently is due to zee Germans.

Germany is a beautiful country. Great food, scenery and nightlife? Check. But they kind of dropped the ball with the lovable Knut.

You remember Knut. He was the cute-as-a-button German polar bear who could have been in a Christmastime Coca-Cola ad but was rejected by his mother in 2006. Instead of being left on his own, he was deemed just too darn sweet to let die like Mother Nature intended. People fawned over his witty-bitty paws and his witty-bitty nose in the way people always do over anything tiny and cute.

When aliens finally need to invade us for our resources they will probably land in the form of witty-bitty bunny-wabbits because people get irrational over anything that is “cute.” Then, when they jump on each other to form an army of rabbit-Transformer creatures and breathe fire all over the Earth, destroying our societies, don’t act surprised. But I digress.

Too-cute Knut lived and grew, not surprisingly, into a giant evil-looking monster that would chew your face off to get an afternoon snack if he could only make his way off that ice floe that is melting and drifting off into oblivion. He was raised entirely by humans who realized they could make a bunch of money off him.

With the money flowing and the crowds loving it, zee Germans decided there was no need for Knut to live remotely like a normal polar bear. In a German report in 2008, one of his keepers said that Knut actually “cries or whimpers” if there are no crowds there to fawn over him. Then he died suddenly last week.

Which brings me back to Willie B., who was not the only mistreated animal in captivity in Atlanta history – beluga whales have been going down like led zeppelins for years now at the Georgia Aquarium. Every species has a right to a habitat, and that includes us humans; but for most species, however, their end is coming sooner than most think.

In a thousand years, which I can predict confidently because I won’t be alive, the only zoos we have will be “zooseums,” where people can look in awe at the two or three species that are left.  

Nothing should be kept in a cage for us to gawk at for profit. Whatever is behind that glass, be it gorilla or bear or beluga whale, everybody staring at them knows they belong in their own environment. Yet they must remain, due to our paradoxical relationship with animals. They are unhappy, unhealthy and trapped inside zoos, but that’s the only way they can stay alive. We can’t send them out in the wild anywhere, because we destroy it constantly.

I guess we will just keep killing them off to make subdivisions, slapping them with tags and putting them in zoos, and lathering their meat up with ketchup to scarf down at the ballpark, until there is nothing left to kill or gawk at but each other. Which reminds me of something else Ishmael wrote:

“With gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?”