WHEN I was growing up in the city, I had a special reason to visit the Baltimore Zoo: I was absolutely convinced I could talk to the animals and that they could talk back to me.
Our conversations went on for years.
For example, I chatted with Snuffy and Frosty, the zoo's popular polar bears in the early 1940s. While they cavorted among the rocks beside their pool, they argued with me over which was to get the chunk of bread I was about to throw. Years later, in 1948, Frosty died, following by only three months the passing of his old friend and playmate, Snuffy. Zoo veterinarians said it was from an "unknown ailment." Wrong. A broken heart was the cause in both cases. Frosty himself had told me all about it . . . .
Betsy the chimp (in the 1950s) was a particularly garrulous zoo resident. She had achieved national fame as an artist and was always chattering immodestly with me, discoursing on the success of her career in the fine arts.
She was the talk of New York, Paris and Rome. Art lovers paid out rageous prices for her work. But she was secretive about her talents. I asked her if she seriously thought finger painting was "art." She told me to mind my own business.
Kansas City Kitty (the male) and Sue City Sue (female), a couple of lions, were particularly interesting, having astounded the world by parenting a set of quints about 1959. That brought national media attention, of course, and I talked to Sue City about it. Would all that fame spoil her quints? "No," she told me, "people quints are remembered. Lion quints fade from view." And so they have.
Sadie the sea lion (in the 1960s) was noisy, contentious, impolite. Frolicking about in her pool, she would come up for air with an interesting and dramatic spin of her body, attracting oohs and ahhs from onlookers. I accused her of being a show-off. She said, "The more I show off, the more snacks spectators toss at me." No argument there
In 1982 the zoo announced "the engagement of Jiggs (an orangutan) to an auburn-haired, brown-eyed beauty from Detroit named Ora. The marriage, the announcement went on discretely, "will be the first for each." Ora had been imported to be Jiggs' wife and the mother of his children. I asked Ora what it was like to be an imported bride in an arranged marriage. What she said must remain confidential.
All of these conversations occurred some years ago, and I haven't been over to the zoo lately. But two new Siberian tiger cubs have been born recently -- unnamed as of this writing. I'll make it a point to get over there and try to talk with them. I'd like to see if I still have the knack.