Thursday, September 5, 1996
Volunteering for human exhibit at zoo

The Cincinnati Enquirer

I love the Cincinnati Zoo. In fact, I'm thinking of living there.

A precedent has been set. Last week, a couple named Henrik Lehmann and Malene Botoft moved into the Copenhagen Zoo, right next to the baboons and monkeys. Fully clothed, surrounded by plexiglass, they are on display - eating, scratching and fighting over the television remote control.

''We don't notice visitors any longer,'' Mr. Lehmann said. ''If I want to pick my nose or my toes, now I do it.'' When he wants to relax after the rigors of grooming, he can use the computer, books, stereo or television. Meanwhile, Ms. Botoft is probably racking up a big tab on the Psychic Hotline.

They are supposedly part of an experiment to remind visitors of the ties between humans and nature. I suspect Mr. Lehmann and Ms. Botoft just found a cushy place to hang out and pick their toes while their kitchen is being remodeled.

Luxury accommodations

Zoos, especially ours, are not big cages anymore. They're devoted to the comfort of their creatures. Take the new Wings of the World bird exhibit, for instance. Ozone filters mimic the environment off the Alaska coast, and Puffins frolic on fake sea cliffs. When you see a bird, you can find its picture and resume nearby. Alert parents can seem very wise.

It's a Rhinoceros Hornbill, you can say after cribbing from the sign. The male, you will lecture sagely, seals the female into a hole in a tree for protection during incubation. No information on how long the Hornbill family's HMO allows her to stay in the tree after delivery. But most other personal information is divulged - diet, mating habits, weight.

''We get the weirdest feeling when people look at how we live,'' Henrik Lehmann says. ''It can be really hard being on show all day.''

Tell it to the gorillas, buddy. They don't have the option of privacy when showering or using the bathroom, and they didn't volunteer for service. They do, however, have their own rice bread. It's one of the recipes from Cooking on the Wild Side, a cookbook you can buy for $12 at the zoo's Thorn Tree Shop.

Gorilla Rice Bread - rice, corn syrup, bananas and baby cereal - doesn't sound too bad. ''You'd be very healthy,'' says Thane Maynard, zoo education director and tireless defender of wildlife.

Bugs and dust balls

''We'd put you pretty much on the same diet as our gorilla Colossus,'' he says. ''We don't fry anything, and there would be very little meat.''

Gorillas are almost strictly vegetarian, according to the sign at Gorilla World. They eat leaves and fruits and the occasional insect. Hey, I don't kid myself. I have probably eaten the occasional insect, too. And Colossus doesn't have to tip or pay for valet parking.

This is sounding better and better.

''Gone are the days when animals are kept in a big tiled room that looks like somebody's bathroom,'' Mr. Maynard says, adding that the staff works hard to make the area look like a natural environment. I picture the staff madly rounding up dust balls for underneath my bed.

Besides bigger and better quarters for all of us potential zoo exhibits, Mr. Maynard says, they have made great strides in something they call ''behavioral enrichment.'' In other words, they try to make things interesting. Instead of tossing out one big lump of food two or three times a day, they might put little snacks all over the habitat. So, I guess I'd be looking for my rice bread under the VCR.

Anyway, I'd like to help Mr. Lehmann, Ms. Botoft and Mr. Maynard encourage people to think about their ties to nature. In fact, I'd like to help people resist ruining nature. And have more respect for the critters in the other cages. And understand how what we do to them comes back to us.

Mr. Maynard says he spends a lot of time figuring out how to teach these things. ''If you don't make it interesting, folks will blow right by,'' he says.

So, he sneaks a lot of information in on you while you're strolling around the stunning foliage and carefully re-created African veldt and jungle trails. He makes his environmental, natural, tree-hugging points clearly and painlessly.

I admire that.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax to 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM).