Four years ago, I left my Shenandoah Valley farm roots to pursue a career in Washington, DC. My apartment complex in Woodley Park promised “beautifully landscaped grounds” near nightlife, public transportation, and the National Zoo. One enthusiastic resident shared that he can hear the monkeys next door.
I have yet to hear monkey chatter, but from my apartment window I can see two ancient red oaks, a greystone Episcopal church, and high-rise walls of concrete and brick enclosing me on every side. Each morning, I follow the lemming herds of distracted professionals funneling down the metro escalator to distant cubicles and screens. On weekends, I migrate to the waterhole of Adams Morgan for rejuvenating social encounters. Art, academia, and fine dining are just a text message away, and I enjoy a privileged existence tailored to fit my whims.
Still, I miss big sky and rural community, and the National Zoo is the closest I can get to the farm these days. The church’s nimble bell song wakes me early Sunday mornings, but rather than enter those greystone walls, I head to the animal sanctuary to visit some of my 1,800 neighbors who are nurtured in state-of-the-art enclosures. I kneel and scratch the glossy coats of the cobby pygmy goats and absorb the antic sermons of the North American river otters carousing in their tank. This is my kind of church.
Not every encounter is uplifting, and some of the animals appear lethargic or depressed. I visit the great ape house and see a shaggy brown orangutan named Lucy dejectedly sitting on a crate with her back to the visitors. A sign on Lucy’s cage calls the crate an “enrichment object” designed to stimulate curiosity and provide entertainment. Can a cold plastic cube compensate for the thrill of southern wind rustling the rainforest cover at night or the loving security of a complete family troop? When at last she turns to us, I raise my own enrichment object and snap a photo. Lucy’s eyes ask me whether life is really better in a cage.