A Trip to the Zoo

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I went to the zoo this weekend, and as always I departed feeling a little ambivalent. When you see creatures like leopards, lemurs, elephants, and apes in those drab enclosures, mere simulacra of their natural habitats, it’s hard not to feel sorry for them. I doubt any faux rock cliff or pool of hose water will ever fully engage their wild intelligences. As I wandered the paved footpaths between continent-themed enclosures, I remembered how my sensitive, vegetarian friend Ben used to call zoos “animal jail.”

On the other hand, these creatures are safe — from predators, from food pressure, from droughts, from us. And isn’t safety what we humans have been striving for since the very start? Our drive to find shelter and protection, to isolate ourselves from the constant threats of the world (coupled with an overdeveloped prefrontal cortex), is the very thing that’s made us so successful on this planet. Maybe it’s because we’ve grown comfortable in our world of boxes that we feel animals will take some sanguine comfort in a zoo’s protection.

But why then do most of us assign a certain sadness to animals in zoos? Is it because we grok that it’s a fine line between being protected and being trapped? Personally, when I feel that boundary growing threadbare, a trip into the mountains becomes particularly important to my sanity. I can only imagine how the silverback gorilla feels as he peers through the glass day after day, at the gallery of baby strollers and hairless apes with cameras, while waiting for his food to be delivered.

A mother tending lovingly to her young, a playful polar bear, a sad-looking gibbon — you can hear the children exclaiming in surprise how the animals are just like people. Through the fences and over moats, the creatures in the zoo always seem to remind us of ourselves, but rarely do we invert that logic and draw the conclusion that we are like them. Or not so much like them as are them.

Granted, it can be a problematic perspective to take. After all, when the boundary between “us” and “them” grows blurry, so do many things we hold to be self-evident. Better to do as I did and gaze with wonder at that enormous, flat face in the glass, with its black leather skin and dense fur and searching eyes, and then get back in your little box of glass and steel and drive away.

Animals that climb

Baby squirrel climbing concrete wall

We humans sure like to make a big deal out of our climbing feats. But anyone who’s spent much time on the rocks knows that nature has produced all manner of creature that excel at high-angle maneuverings in a way we clumsy Homo sapiens sapiens could only dream. Here’s a collection of 11 such variations from Mother Nature’s menagerie, all of which utilize unique and often strange modes of vertical locomotion.

Bears

This video of climbing bears started making the rounds in April, 2014, and really caught fire—probably because the climbing bears look so much like climbing humans when they move. According to the YouTube description, these “Endangered Mexican Black Bears” are scaling the walls of Santa Elena Canyon. The videographer spotted the momma and her cubs while kayaking and whipped out the ol’ camera, just in time to make an Internet sensation.

Baboons

Like most primates, baboons are excellent tree climbers. But did you know they also climb rocks? And because they’re built a lot like humans, they look like us when they climb, too. Aside from a killer strength-to-weight ratio, baboons benefit from long tails they can fling around for balance, and prehensile toes that can grasp the rock as ably as fingers. Baboons dig congregating on sheer cliff faces because it keeps them pretty well beyond the reach of natural predators, like leopards and cheetahs.

Geckos

These radass lizards have been the subject of endless scientific study due to their ability to calmly stroll up even the smoothest surfaces — glass, for example. They achieve this sweet trick thanks to their hairy feet. Not quite as gross as it sounds, geckos use superfine hairs called setae to adhere via van der Waals forces (which attract molecules to each other) to pretty much any surface. Adhesives have since been created that steal a page from the gecko’s playbook, and we will no doubt soon have climbing shoes coated with setae. Which would be totally cheating.

Sloths

Sure, they’re a little pokey, but what the sloth lacks in speed, it makes up for in efficiency. Sloths have long hook-like claws they use to dangle from the tree branches they call home. If you were to ask a sloth for climbing advice, he would probably say, “Simple. Don’t let go.” That’s advice these shaggy, muppet-looking creatures really take to heart — so tenacious is their grip, they’ve been observed to remain suspended in a tree even after they die.

Squirrels

We’ve all seen squirrels blast up a tree at warp speed, but did you know they can also climb a blank concrete wall? I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself, when a baby squirrel in Colorado fell from a tree and then scampered for the nearest wall to climb away from danger. Squirrels’ sharp, hook-like claws, coupled with a highly mobile ankle that allows them to rotate their rear feet around backwards, lets them hang from and climb a variety of surfaces. In the case of the baby squirrel I saw, tiny air-bubble pockets in the concrete were just right for claw placements.

Snakes

Like squirrels, the fact that snakes can climb trees is no big deal. But, troublingly, they can also climb other vertical surfaces — brick walls, for example. Researchers have found that snakes use what’s called a “concertina” mode of locomotion, in which some regions of the body stop and grip while others extend forward, to climb. Snakes not only have amazing flexibility (due to their hundreds of vertebrae) and muscle control, but they can also extend tough scales on their underside for increased grip.

Mountain Goats

Perhaps you’ve seen this photo, showing a bunch of goats (mountain ibex, specifically) chillin’ on the wall of a dam in Italy like it’s a nice place for a nap. Aside from a Honnoldian head for free soloing, many goats also have feet custom-made for vertical exploits. This passage from Douglass Chadwick’s book, A Beast the Color of Winter, describes the mountain goat’s special climbing footwear: “The sides of a mountain goat’s toes consist of the same hard keratin found on the hoof of a horse or deer. Each of the two wrap around toenails can be used to catch and hold to a crack or tiny knob of rock…The mountain goat is shod with a special traction pad which protrudes slightly past the nail. This pad has a rough textured surface that provides a considerable amount of extra friction on smooth rock and ice.” The list of all-terrain features goes on…  Five Ten take note…

Crabs

Wait. What? That’s right, crabs can climb — or at least one kind can: the coconut crab, which is an arthropod related to the hermit crab and is found across the islands of the Indian Ocean and parts of the Pacific. (FYI, the coconut crab can grow to be almost ten pounds and three feet across.) These fruit- and vegetable-loving critters will actually climb trees using their long, spiny legs and grab coconuts, which they then smash open using their powerful claws and eat.

Cats

As we all know, cat videos are the heart and soul of the Internet, so it was easy to find videos of cats climbing things. Still, it’s impressive that cats have so thoroughly honed their face and arête climbing techniques. Cats big and small rely on tactics similar to that of the squirrel — i.e., sharp claws and an awesome kinetic sense — to scale trees and manmade structures alike. I’d bet a can of Fancy Feast maneuvers like those shown in this video are the root of the term “cat burglar.”

Spiders

Like geckos, spiders legs are studded with microscopic hairs which, scientists postulate, allows them to stick to walls via electrostatic attraction (the afore-mentioned van der Waals forces). Spiders and most insects also sport tiny tarsal claws that can grip the minute texture of surfaces that, to our eyes, appear smooth. Hence their ability to hang upside-down on the ceiling and then drop on you. Which is totally creepy. In fact, I think I feel a tickle on my neck right now…

Snails

Lubricated with a mucus layer secreted by a gland near the mouth, snails are able to glide, albeit slowly, on a layer of slime. This terrestrial gastropod mollusk’s flat underside undulates in a wave-like motion to propel it forward. Its slimy excretions, combined with a smooth, flat base, creates a powerful suction, allowing snails to climb walls, trees, etc. This method of climbing, although effective, is undoubtedly the grossest method, and it really louses things up for other creatures who might want to climb afterward, like that super sweaty guy in the gym.