Riffing on the natural world with a Jewish zookeeper


I drove down Broad Street to the entrance to the Roger Williams Park Zoo to meet up with zookeeper Jeremy Goodman, and to discuss Torah with him, before Shabbat and on the brink of Pesach.  

Goodman wears a kippah, a yarmulke, which frees me to imagine that here, among the cheetahs and the elephants, the birds and the monkeys, we can study and discuss the messages contained or liberated from these exotic, and often endangered, fellow travelers through time and space: our cousins, the wildlife. 

I heard about Goodman from Deborah Schuss, the daughter of the local, beloved, late Morris Gastfreund.  She thought he and I would have a valuable (and voluble) chat among the sacred wandering tribes of all of life’s citizens. We might even have a lot in common.

“Zoos have been maligned, rightly or wrongly, but they get better all the time,” Goodman said at the start of our hour-long portion. “They offer children the chance to enjoy the gentle sight of beasts from the jungle, creatures other than the raccoon that knocks over the garbage can or the squirrel that knocks acorns on your head.”

He continued: “No, we don’t, and can’t, return these large animals into the wild, their original habitat. They wouldn’t know what to do, they are bred from generations of domesticated families used to safe and rather pleasant confinement. 

“We tend in the U.S.A. to deal with them as individuals, an American concept, while in Europe, the zoos stress the species not the individual.  We actually use contraception, rather than euthanization.”   

I responded to Goodman’s logical, earnest and straightforward words with my usual interest in the child’s viewpoint.  

“Don’t they want the fun, the variety and adventure of the forest (as in a “Fantasia” or a “Snow White” animation?). Don’t they want the meaningful freedom of the woods, divinely designed?” 

(I knew I was treading on dangerous ground with this sentimental and impractical argument.)

“I always wanted to write a children’s book with animals teaching us lessons, as in ‘Aesop’s Fables,’ or even in the Noah’s ark story, which says our survival requires the welfare of every living thing, bird or bat.”    

Goodman said, “There is no more true wilderness anywhere in the world. Only protected parks and preserves. But we are primarily an educational establishment, not for money but for the future.  Torah emphasizes, like Pesach right before us, that we must hand down to future generations what we have inherited. Our traditions are our collective strengths.”

Well, we had a lot to say to each other and to hear from each other.  I learned from Goodman  – whose name suits him, because he is a good man – that, as he proposed, maybe only humankind has a “neshama,” a soul.  But we owe kindness and respect for what God has put into our realms to every thing on earth. 

“Did you or your children have dogs and cats to care for and learn from?” I asked.

“No,” he answered, “but a cockatiel came into our lives on its own, perching on my finger and trusting that we could provide for him.” 

So I told him a few tales about the birds in my life and among the books I teach in my class at the Rhode Island School of Design, “Birds and Words,” and then he invited me to visit the new open section of our zoo. 

A pair of wee monkeys greeted the moms and dads carrying very young boys and girls, too little even for kindergarten or pre-K, on shoulders or in strollers, taking in the wonders of brilliant blue parrots flying free, or those tiny long-tailed south American primates jumping from ledge to bar, gazing back at the guests with equal curiosity.  

I took one or two snapshots as evidence of this brief encounter, but mostly I was content to know, and to enjoy, the image of Jeremy Goodman at work.  For, as Robert Frost put it, “Only where work and play are one, is the work ever really done, for heaven and the future’s sake.”  

“Are we all behind bars and glass cases, and have we turned Eden itself into a zoo?” I asked. I imagined it might have been a rude question, but Goodman took it in stride.  

“Well, yes, with our computers and phones and windows, we are watched by the free wind of outdoors and we hardly notice it!” he said.  

I have to leave it at that, for now.

MIKE FINK (mfink33@aol.com) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.

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