As I flip out a pair of jeans from the dryer, a soggy piece of plastic falls to the floor. The letter "Z" was barely visible in a twisted scrawl and what used to be two "O"s now crumpled into a shape similar to the squared-off rims of a hipster's glasses. This is, or rather was, my membership card to my hometown zoo, half a country away from my tiny Princeton pad. Warped and jaded, the card hasn't survived a spin cycle, and replacing it won't be easy. I resolve not to wait until the next flight home to Iowa, and check out the local "zoological garden" offerings. Who knew that in my search for a new zoo, I would be driven to deeply question the American media?
A quick Google search, and I'm on my way: Catskill Game Farm. "Finally, something that will remind me of home," I thought. In addition to the average farm fare of goats and sheep, though, "exotic" animals are also featured: crocodiles, snakes, zebras, giraffes. "2000 animals in 150 different species," a blurb boasts. But an Aug. 4 article warns that the zoo will soon close. Director Kathie Schulz made the "decision in consultation" with her colleagues, Marco Leavitt of the Albany Business Review wrote, "mutually concluding that continuing to operate the park wouldn't be feasible." Coining the farm as a "petting zoo operation" — "operation"? Is this a strategic think tank? — Leavitt approaches the story with an unnaturally formal attitude that alienates me as a reader. "What about the animals?" I wonder. The answer cuts too close to the cuticle: "an animal auction," Leavitt said, is "to be held Oct. 17." And then, not missing a beat: "There's an equipment auction the next day."
It is on exactly that date that I cross and anxiously squeeze my legs under my Mac, typing this story. Another Google search produces no news of the "auction," that dehumanizing, or, perhaps, de-animalizing word that bites off the ear, chokes the neck. Say "auction" and I blink to Abel Meerpoll's 1939 poem Strange Fruit. I remember my gut dropping, rolling over itself, to the side of disgust when I first heard it — so similar to my reaction to Leavitt's "auction" phrase. On this day, I expect a Satanic sort of Noah's Ark, a trading game, a poker table placing animals equivalent with spades. But I, like the rest of the small yet vigorous contingent of animal rights watchers, must wait until tomorrow morning's paper, or next afternoon's blog post.
After the Business Review omen, the Catskill Game Farm seemed to go off the radar. I heard nothing, read nothing until a few weeks ago, when a few small presses in the New York area picked it up. TheDailyFreeman.com posted an article five days before the Farm positioned itself to close. Joshua Rinaldi's Aug. 4 "Catskill Game Farm Closing" took a nostalgic bent to the issue, lamenting that Schulz's announcement is "bringing a 73-year tradition to an end." Unlike the Business Review column, said Schulz decided to "make the announcement three months before the closure so her staff could have time to find other jobs," Rinaldi speculated that Schulz "knows some people have a sentimental attachment ... which is why she announced its closing well ahead of time. That way people who want to enjoy one last visit will still have time to come."
As the Farm's Oct. 9 closing inched nearer and nearer, local residents flocked to the park in a last ditch effort to "get it before it's gone," even the Catskill Game Farm's website called for "1/2 PRICE SOUVENIRS (WITH THE EXCEPTION OF T-SHIRTS, SWEATSHIRTS AND ANTLERS.) At the mention of the last "souvenir," antlers, my support for the Farm began to wane. Why would you want to take a body part of an animal you just fed with your own hands with you, I wondered? Was Catskill a zoo or a "gaming" range, a pre-hunting season hot spot?
Two days later, my fears were confirmed. In The New York Times' "Farms Fate is Certain, but the Future of Its Animals is Not," Anahad O'Connor wrote, "About 1000 are set to be auctioned off ... including elk, antelope, rhinos, monkeys, snakes, alligators and tortoises." As I read on, I realized there were others who shared my worries: "There is concern that many may land in poorly run roadside zoos or in the hands of collectors with no guarantee for their wellbeing." "Collectors?" Try "poachers." The article went on to point out that the animals are valued for their meat and as canned hunting targets, where they are often drugged and have little chance to escape. These revelations pushed my "righteous activist" button. Indignant and outraged, I clicked through gory pictures of "canned hunts," and scrolled down pages of impassioned accounts from animal rights activists.
As it turns out, far from a Mom and Pop operation, the zoo was allegedly selling animals to hunting ranches. Its peer institutions, including the San Francisco and Toronto Zoos, stopped doing business with it for that reason. I had been completely taken in by the very first article I read, which represented only one side. Especially in this election season, the lessons I learned from my experience with the zoo are relevant. As we formulate what we think, and how we think, reading in newspapers or online, text or print, we must question everything. Even if the print feels fuzzy, like that crumpled zoo membership card, let's try to make out the text, redraw a few letters, find out what's really going on. We, and our media, deserve it.