One spring morning in the mid-1960's, when I was about eleven years old, I woke up to a sound I had never ever heard before. It was the sound of my father crying, and not just crying, but sobbing. As far as I could tell, he was sitting at the kitchen table. Though I was two rooms away in a bedroom I shared with two sisters, in my young mind I could almost see him there at the table, head in hands, more distraught than I had ever thought possible. My mother was saying soothing things to him, with words I couldn't quite make out. It was still dark, which made the sorrow even more solid and hard to understand. Our father did not cry. What could have possibly made this happen? Life felt very odd to me at that moment, the world had tipped on its axis. I was lying in bed, with the blankets pulled up around me, and no idea what to make of this.
After the house had warmed a bit and things had gotten quiet, I got up and went into the kitchen. My father had gone out and my mother was there alone. I pretended to be busy getting a bowl of cereal or something when I asked her, in my usual vague manner - not feeling free to intrude upon their private lives - what had happened.
Our father had, a few days earlier, purchased several birds, some considered rather exotic. He was going to add them to our growing collection of animals and birds that would inhabit the wild animal park they were creating, which was opening sometime in May, fishing opener more than likely. My parents had named it Deer Valley, as it was set in a valley between two small but busy tourist towns near where we lived.
I knew Dad had carefully constructed a pen for these birds in a corner of the barn, waiting for slightly warmer weather to transport them to the park. I'm sure he felt absolutely confident he'd built it in such a way as to prevent any intruders from entering it. He was a very careful man. But, the night before, that pen hadn't stopped a mink or weasel from finding a way into the barn, digging far under the fence, and killing every single one of those birds.
I don't know if my father was terribly distraught because of the loss of the birds - their lives, which I know he valued, and the cost, which would have been a lot for us in those days - or because he couldn't get past feeling responsible for not hearing what surely must have been a ruckus in the barn. Later, we talked about how the dog hadn't even barked, which seemed unusual. He had, for reasons now lost to time, went out early, before sun-up, to check on them. I wouldn't doubt that, on some intuitive level, he already knew before he entered the barn.
As my mom and I stood there in the kitchen, it dawned on me that my dad was not invincible after all, that it was possible for him to hurt to the point of crying, that he could feel real pain over life's sometimes scarring circumstances. It was a hard thing for me, to see my dad in this new light, as a fully-realized human being. And in that moment, I wished it wasn't true, that the mink had not gotten into the pen, my father had not sat at the kitchen table in the dark in the early morning and sobbed, I had not heard my mother quietly talking to him in her attempts at making it hurt less, and that we could go back to the way things were.
But we couldn't, and we didn't, and life went on. It was not the last of my father's hurts over the care of these animals. But it was the first. And although our animals were not exotic animals - they were deer and bear, red fox, buffalo, and other native animals - you might feel we had no business keeping any such animals, and you would be right. A few years later, my father's new awareness took hold and he let the business go. I remember him telling me that he'd come to see the animals as his "relatives." He felt close to them and no longer wanted to be the keeper of the keys.
I thought about this last week as those exotic animals in Ohio met their death at the hands of men who would say they had no recourse, and were given the order to "shoot to kill." The whole thing left me feeling unsettled and with more than a few questions, especially after reading that the animals didn't roam much farther than a few hundred yards from their fence. Yes, I've read all the reasons why they felt they had to shoot. I'm fully aware of the reasons why they felt tranquilizer guns would not have been a timely and effective solution. But I'm still left with questions.
I understand the fear local residents must have felt, knowing some of the animals had escaped previously and knowing the terrible damage that they could inflict on their lives, but I so wish it could have been another outcome than death to those beautiful animals. The image of that lion lying there dead is heartbreaking. I know, I know, better this way than a human life lost, but I still can't quite wrap my mind around what happened. Eighteen of the tigers were Bengal tigers, which are dangerously close to extinction. Why was this man allowed to keep these animals?
In any case, these animals were killed through no fault of their own, but just by being the animals they were, and had always been. It's hard for me to accept. And it makes me very sad.
Here's Neil Young and "Ohio." I can't help but think it's connected. Everything is.
The top photo is from National Geographic. The others are from news sources in Ohio.