Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Vinnie Goes to the Zoo

One fine autumn afternoon in Albuquerque, during the mid 90s, Karen and I decided to go to the Rio Grande Zoo. 

We had been in Albuquerque several years, but Karen's guide dog, the German shepherd, Lyric, was getting older and becoming a bit dysplastic, so a long afternoon of needless wandering around a zoo seemed like something she might no longer enjoy. In her younger days, though, Lyric always found zoos exhilarating and interesting, by and large.

Karen and Lyric had been to the Brookfield and Lincoln Park Zoos in Chicago, and found their traffic-free, wide paths, to be a great place to both work and enjoy themselves at the same time. Lyric also used to go to the Miller Park Zoo, in Bloomington, IL. 

At the time, at least, the Miller Park Zoo was pretty pathetic, but they did have a tiger, who was kept in an inappropriate (to my mind) habitat. It was just a big cage, not the type of stimulating enclosed environment better zoos strive to provide.

The tiger in Bloomington was also quite close to the public. We would go to the zoo, and the tiger would see Lyric. I think it was the only time the poor creature ever bothered to get up. Then, unmistakably viewing Lyric as potential prey, the tiger would begin stalking, back and forth, with ever increasing rapidity, in his lonely cage, giving Lyric the death-gaze that only a massive cat can pull off on a German shepherd. 

When this happened, Lyric would turn her back, and staunchly refuse to believe that there was a 500 pound, predatory, cat behind her, who wanted to prey on her. We only took Lyric to that zoo a couple of times, because she began to get too upset about the tiger, and its obvious single-minded desire for her flesh.

Were we in any way being cruel to the tiger, teasing it with the prospect of a Lyric lunch? I would say not. The life of a tiger really sucks in a zoo like that, where they have no companions or environments with which to entertain themselves. Seeing another animal  a predator as well, but one small enough to be his prey, had to be nice for the tiger, in that at least it was something different.

And let's be honest here. The tiger would have happily eaten any of the slack jawed children who stared at him day after day. Seeing a dog was just a break from the monotony for the tiger, and if it wouldn't have upset Lyric so much, we would have gone more often, just to entertain the big, lonely, cat.

When Lyric retired, and Karen got her new guide dog, Vinnie, a black lab, we decided to go the Rio Grande Zoo in Albuquerque, which we had been told was beautiful. Karen put the harness on Vinnie and we went out to the zoo. That's when the ticket taker told us, "No dogs."

Karen patiently went through the whole "this is a guide dog" explanation, and produced her and Vinnie's I.D. issued by the Seeing Eye. Again, the word was, "No dogs."

Wrong answer.

Guide dog users had their own civil rights struggle, that lasted years, to enact state and federal laws guarantying them the right to use their dogs anywhere the public was invited. There was a good deal of public resistance, coupled with widespread disbelief that a.) a dog could safely lead a blind person around and b.) that blind people in fact needed to get around. After all, they're blind. 

If you're blind, such reasoning goes, what difference does it make whether you are in a nice restaurant or eating the same food at home. You can't see the difference.Such attitudes did (and to a much lesser extent still do) further stigmatize the blind, discouraging educational and vocational integration, and in a sense using a Seeing Eye dog, as opposed to a white cane, can be a political statement, saying, "I may be blind, but I participate fully in all aspects of life."

There's a sappy, but still good, Disney movie on the subject called, Love Leads the Way, starring Timothy Bottoms, Susan "Laurie Partridge" Dey, and the remarkable Ernest Borgnine as the twisted villain, a Senator who has a psychotic and unexplained hate-on for dogs. It's definitely worth watching, if not worth seeking out.

The point is, though, starting in the 1930s, thousand of guide dog users had to fight guys like Ernest Borgnine to have their dogs accepted as necessary, so they would be allowed in restaurants, theatres, hospitals, and, yes, even zoos. They take their hard-earned right seriously, and a guide dog user such as Karen, who was also a lawyer, took this right especially seriously, and felt strongly that with such a right came a corresponding responsibility, to herself, and others, to see that the law was not allowed to be randomly abridged by the prejudiced and ill-informed, whether they wear the cloak of expertise or not.

Karen was more assertive than most guide dog users. It would be wildly unfair to call her the Rosa Parks of guide dog users, but I'm going to do it anyway. If Karen's rights were going to be challenged, there was going to be a big scene, right then and there, and if that scene didn't ultimately result in admittance and an apology, it was going to be followed up by legal action. 

Sometimes the action was commenced through the city's human rights commission, which provided statutory fines for denying guide dogs admittance. Things at the zoo, however, were more serious than that. In this situation, because the zoo was under the city's control, it was the city itself who was discriminating against her.

Karen had recently been admitted as an attorney to the bar, and been hired as an assistant district attorney. As the victim of a violation of the law, and as an officer of the court sworn to uphold the law, Karen did the only thing she could. She called the cops, and insisted they make a report of the incident.

She wanted to storm the gates after the police report was filled out, and force the zoo personnel to physically interfere with her, thereby committing a serious violation of federal law, but, for once, I was the calmer head, and convinced her not to take that path. The police dutifully wrote out their report, but had no idea what to do next. Short of arresting the zoo itself, we had no idea either, so we all went home to figure it out.

Then we called the media, and though we got a lot of coverage in the newspaper and on TV, we were disheartened to see the other side's view presented as if it were reasonable. To state it as affirmatively as possible: The zoo's position was wholly unreasonable and arbitrary. 

Karen was by no means the first guide dog user to go to a zoo, and the laws regarding guide dog use had been well established in all 50 states for half a century. 

The director of the zoo (the late John Moore, as played by Ernest Borgnine) was making statements to the press to the effect that guide dogs would cause the zoo animals to panic and break their necks, fleeing into brick walls, and cause other species to eat their young. He maintained Vinnie would spread parvo to the zoos rare canines.

Just to be sure, we did additional research, and we couldn't find any other zoo in the country that didn't allow guide dogs. We also made sure the "breaking neck, eating young, getting parvo" argument was in fact utter nonsense and was not supported by any scientific, or even anecdotal, evidence. 

Karen then obtained permission from her office to represent herself in this matter, and informed the City Attorney, and the media, that she was now bringing a federal civil rights case against the city, if this wasn't taken care of immediately. He asked for one month to cool down his zoo-keeper, and true to his word, the illegal ban was lifted.

Finally, almost a year later, we could go for a nice stroll through the zoo with Vinnie. Karen harnessed him up, we bought our tickets, and went in. I was immediately attracted to the monkey and ape area, and directed Karen and Vinnie to follow me. We passed a lot of animals on the way, none of whom panicked or ate their young, and none of whom vaguely interested Vinnie. He preferred looking at the children. Especially the children with food that might drop to the ground in his path.

At the gorilla exhibit, there was one of those things where you sort of go underground and then can see the animals through glass windows. We were in luck, because a large male gorilla was sitting right in front of one of the peepholes, eating some leaves. I was looking at the gorilla, telling Karen about it, when, suddenly, Vinnie looked up.

The gorilla's face was squarely in front of the glass. He and Vinnie , mere inches away, made eye contact. The ape looked surprised for a moment, and then went back to contentedly eating his leaves. I started to tell Karen about it, but suddenly, she was gone.

Vinnie, with no direction from Karen, against all Seeing Eye training rules, pulled her out of the ape tunnel at warp speed, and didn't stop until they were 20 feet into the fresh air. 

Vinnie was shaken to his core, having just seen what he had to have imagined to be the ugliest, most deformed, horrific-looking human being ever! This person was so grotesque he had to live in an underground lair, and Vinnie, who had to endure a lot in the name of being a working dog, absolutely was going to have no part of this freak show. Further, using his professional judgment as a Seeing Eye dog, he decided mom was going to have no part of it, either.

Vinnie was so shaken up we had to leave immediately. Our victory over the zoo had been Pyrrhic. Vinnie got to go, but, unfortunately, couldn't stay, so neither could we.

Even though he was a lab, and a silly boy, and an eater of anything, who cost us a fortune at the vet due to his persistent "dietary indiscretions," Vinnie did most definitely have a sensitive side, and this was simply too much. Facing off against hairy monsters in underground lairs was not part of the job description provided him by the Seeing Eye.

After that, we were much more careful about exposing Vinnie to potentially traumatic or frightening situations, and, with the exception of one other monkey, and a group of pirates, we were fairly successful. He scared us a time or two, but those are stories for another day, along with plenty of stories where Vinnie isn't scared.

© 2009, All Rights Reserved, Rich Sands


Your Daily Cute said...

Aw, great story. I'm glad you did get to go to the zoo!

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