Humans have a long history of imposing various forms of birth control and reproductive technologies on animals, breeding some and sterilizing others. In recent years, we’ve even administered advanced fertility treatments to endangered captive animals like giant pandas and lowland gorillas. These measures, both high- and low-tech, have come to feel as routine as the management of our own reproduction. We feel responsible when we spay and neuter our cats and dogs, proud when our local zoos release photos of baby animals born of luck and science.
This reminds me of the worst animal story I've ever heard, which I would like to share with you all now.
In 2006 my friend Elisa and I went to the National Zoo and went straight to the part where they have the elephants, giraffes, and hippopotamus. The elephants are my favorite animals at the National Zoo, and I used to go look at them about once a week when I lived in DC.
There was a volunteer in the Elephant House that day so we stopped to talk to her about various aspects of elephant care and maintenance. There was a big contraption behind her--an elaborate system of beams and pulleys, like a super-sized Pilates reformer--and we asked her what it was. She explained that they use it to wash Kandula, who was born at the zoo in 2001. He's a male, she explained, and males can be hard to manage.
Normally I would be sort of "preach it, sister," but I expressed some surprise: he was still small at that point, and seemed like a baby elephant. On a previous visit I had watched as he stumbled out of his enclosure, fumbled around in a dry water trough looking for a drink, realized it was empty, walked over to the faucet, tried to turn it on, couldn't manage--although elephants have a finger-like appendage at the end of the trunk that allows them to be quite dextrous, he hadn't quite mastered this--and so walked over to the adjoining paddock to the next trough, using his trunk to swat a tire swing along the way. Kid stuff.
He was a juvenile, the volunteer explained, but one of the things about animals in captivity is that they can enter maturity earlier than zookeepers expect, and because of what happened with the hippo--
Happy the hippo, she explained, was born at the National Zoo in 1981. As a baby, he lived in an exhibit with his mother and an unrelated female hippo, lurking sinisterly beneath the waterline and whatnot. The plan was that he would eventually moved to his own space. But before that happened, Happy entered maturity ahead of schedule, and impregnated his own mother.
The calf, happily, was healthy. To get rid of the evidence, the zoo separated the hippos. The mother was put on birth-control pills and sent to a zoo in Florida. The calf went somewhere else. Happy stayed on at our nation's National Zoo, wallowing in his own filth and shame, where his self-indulgent lifestyle made an implicit mockery of the thousands of families who blithely visited him each year, fine people like Harrison Ford and Callista Flockhart.
That is, at least, what the volunteer told us. I see that the wild animal in question has since moved to Milwaukee, and I think we can all be grateful that even if our capital city has become less Happy, it has regained some minor measure of dignity.