Reading on the bus about African wildlife, I thought of a thing that happened twenty years ago, when I brought a girl-friend’s ten-year-old son to the SF Zoo. He was…well, how should I say it? A very bright, very bad boy. Insanely willfull, anyway. Completely contemptuous of authority. Zinging with energy, much of it malevolent. Though he and I got along well enough. I suppose he really needed a father and I was the guy with the long pants on for a while anyway.
The Zoo was working on the rhino compound, and so the beasts were kept in a rear, outdoor area. They were clearly visible, though about a couple of hundred feet from people. Of which there were exactly two, the boy and me, since it was nearly closing time and everyone else had left.
The larger rhino, I assume a male, regarded us blankly with those small eyes of his, nearly hidden by the huge horns on his forehead.
Then, for whatever kind of wacko impulse drives boys to do the stupid and dangerous things they are famous for, this boy began making silly faces at the rhino. These were classic teasing faces –eyes crossed, fingers wagging at the nose, ears pushed outward. He began jumping around, and shouting, “Nyaa-nyaa-nyaa-nyaa-nyaa!”
I would have expected the rhino, after all a zoo animal who had gazed at a zillion human faces in his life, to completely ignore such a silly little display, and at such a considerable distance.
But no. He got angry! He snorted and bristled. He pawed the ground and tossed his horn. A cloud of dust rose from his war-dance. His eyes turned red.
He gave off the force of a small bulldozer.
I was appalled. Not scared, because of the wall, the moat, the distance. But because of how upset this incarcerated animal had become. How terribly upset.
And I was appalled by the boy who laughed all the harder and jumped around making faces with increased energy as the rhino actually charged back and forth across the postage-stamp-sized space they had penned him in.
At that point I collared the kid and got him the hell out of there. During the drive home I tried to make him see how wrong his behavior had been. He laughed all the way to his door.
Thinking back on all this as the city rolled by my bus window, I thought of the second rhino in that temporary enclosure, I believe a female since she was smaller than the pissed-off male and hovered quietly in the background while her mate (I’m presuming so much here, but what the hell?) blew his stack.
Ah, I thought. Could that be why the huge beast allowed himself to become so infuriated by such a short and skinny little boy making faces? The male defending a lady, maybe even a pregnant lady?
That clarified things. All I had to do was look back on the several times I had reacted to threats or insults, real or imagined, to women in my life. Or over-reacted.
Behavior as deep as breath.