September 18, 2012

In Captivity

I guess I've always felt like a caged animal.

My earliest memory is in my crib, gripping the protective bars like a prison door, wanting to get out.

I spent my entire childhood, desperately seeking a way out.

Ironically, once I graduated to a bed without bars, I repeatedly would fall out of it while sleeping, most times not even waking up when I hit the floor.

As I got older and my relationship with my parents worsened, they often exiled me to a hot attic in the middle of summer, for hours, as punishment usually for something I didn't do.

Even worse, they wouldn't ever let me sleep, change my clothes, take a bath, or go to the toilet with the door closed - the only times I would have desired such enclosure.

Now, as an adult, despite my reticence to share any commonality with my mother's phobic nature, I get claustrophobic easily. By the time I left New York, I felt its high-rises and subway doors closing in on me, too tightly, too emphatically. In past jobs, I've often referred to my office as "my cage." The same could be said for my apartment. The worst punishment for me is to be stuck in there all day, all by myself.

So as much as I love to visit animals at zoos, farms, fairs, and bird and animal sanctuaries, it really bothers me to see livestock in a pen, chickens in a coop, horses in a stall. Zoos often rehabilitate injured and/or lost wildlife, but what happens to them if they are not, then, set free? If endangered, they are kept to forcibly breed and ensure the survival of the species? And then what?

It's not that I think that every creature should roam free - there are enough perils that greet our local mountain lions who find themselves crossing the 405 freeway in search of food - but what kind of life is there to lead in captivity?

I was reminded of my own struggles with being held captive as a child during a recent visit to the Exotic Feline Breeding Compound's Feline Conservation Center, colloquially dubbed "The Cat House," in the Mojave Desert just north of Los Angeles. The Cat House is run by a non-profit dedicated to the protection and preservation of the world's most endangered felines, and studies show that the life expectancy of these wild cats is far greater in captivity than out in the wild.

But during the day, especially when it's hot, these leopards, jaguars, cougars and tigers just sit there. If they emerge, they pace back and forth, as spectators like me gawk at them, waiting for them to do something. They appear restless, and, at times, disaffected.

We visit them at twilight, because this is when they're most active, but still, they don't really do anything. Volunteers toss cardboard boxes into the cages as "enrichment items" to get them to play. The boxes are presently stomped upon and torn to shreds, as are the whole watermelons gingerly deposited into the cages as snacks.

Once the boxes and the melons are obliterated, then what? There is nothing left to do. Unless they're lucky enough to also have a phone book to turn to and tear apart.

I'm pretty sure my parents held me captive in their house to protect me from the dangers of the outside world: skinned knees, twisted ankles, strangers, dirt and deathly disease. But, kept inside all day, I was pale and sickly, weak and fearful, fat and overfed, socialized only with a legion of stuffed animals, my sole companions. My fingertips pruned under dishwater and bathwater. My nostrils burned under the fumes of harsh cleaning fluids.

I often thought I would be better off in the wild, exposed to the elements (and all that "night air"). I repeatedly considered running away from home to escape my imperiled life on the inside, bruised easily and visibly by my mother's angry whollops. Eventually, after years of my fruitless deliberation, my parents made the decision for me, casting me out of the house with the suggestion that I find "somewhere else to sleep." It was the best thing they ever did for me, in the 18 years since my birth.

And once I was released, I never wanted to return to anything that reminded me of my former capture.

So it's hard for me to stay at home, for any extended period of time, alone.

It's hard for me not to drive.

It terrifies me to stay inside for too long.

And yet, it is so familiar, and somehow so easy. I spent half of my life as a prisoner. I know captivity as well as I know freedom, perhaps better. After all, there is less to know inside the cage than outside of it.

Related Posts:
First Day on Foot
Open Door Policy
Out of Hiding

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