He is sat there watching me. Watching me-watching him; his grey head resting on his powerful arms. His sad eyes look out at me, somewhat obliquely, from under a large dark protruding brow. His silver back, a sign of power and greatness, hunched disconsolately on the scaffold under which swings an old worn tyre on some frayed orange rope.
And I can’t help but ask myself what he is thinking. The bars that surround him, entrapping him, also emasculate him. A king of the mountain forest, brought down. Here there is no kingdom for him to survey, lest you count the barren concrete shell in which he dwells.
A child sidles up the front of the cage; his eyes wide open with awe. He presses his face to the bars, waiting, waiting for the gorilla to do something, to charge, to roar, to bare his teeth. But the gorilla does not move and the child begins to sense that his power isn’t there. It isn’t long before the child’s face has changed; the awe has gone. What replaces it is scorn. The child begins to dance from foot to foot, waggling his hands up by his ears and crying out in what he takes to be monkey language. The gorilla sighs and remains there, motionless. The boy loses interest and rushes of, dragging his parents by the hand to see the snakes.
And the gorilla sits there. Thinking. Sad. Maybe.
Maybe he remembers the past. Maybe he remembers the freedom he once knew; early morning mists floating through the trees; the mountains rising high above him; flashes of colour as dazzling birds flit overhead. Maybe he remembers his family, the mother he clung to: who brought him food when he was hungry; who carried him when he was tired; who looked after him when he was in danger. And the great silverback who was always there proud and protective- shot by poachers as he faced the danger, never shirking his duty to protect. Maybe.
I wonder at all he has seen; taken as a young ape from the mountains of Rwanda– stolen by poachers who murdered his mother and many of his family; then sold to a private collector before being discovered, skeletal and battered. He was brought here to recover and, over many years, remained- a star attraction in a vast freak show. I wonder at what he has seen, in Rwanda, a war torn country full of barely hidden violence; a country at once sublime and chaotic. I wonder at what abuse he has known- in the hands of a collector who showed no care beyond his first child-like years. I wonder at his loss.
I look sadly into his eyes. He raises himself to his full height, all 5ft 6”, all 400lbs. He swings down from the scaffold and wanders up to me. For a moment I experience that awesome power he has chosen keep at bay. I feel the thrill run through me and cannot help but reach out a hand through the bars to touch him. But he is too far back. He edges casually forward toward me and sniffs, as if to say I see you and then proceeds, it seems to me, to examine me. I stand there motionless unable to move as his eyes scour me, inside and out. I dare hardly breathe- the connection is palpable. At last he stops and I feel I must have made the grade, for he sits himself down in front of me never taking his eyes off me and I feel that he is about to share his burden. And it is then I notice a disturbing truth. For, as I stand outside looking at him- pitying him; I see in his eyes that he pities me. Suddenly I feel strangely naked in front of this great beast.
I look into his eyes and I see how he sighs not for his own loss, but for the loss of humankind. I see the perversity with which we pursue our lives- rushing from place to place, from stress to stress. I see the ways in which we trap ourselves in spirals of sleeplessness and fatigue, blocking out nature- killing it with our hum; a hum of machinery, of production lines, of progress; the hum of destruction, desecration and greed. I see the hypocrisy of how we paint ourselves as nature’s saviours and providers; whilst taking and destroying with our other hand. I see rainforests dwindle, fields explode and skies blacken. I see species disappear whilst scientists splice genes, life crushed whilst we seek to preserve and extend.
And all the while we trundle on setting each night the alarm for the focus of tomorrow. We rail against the gifts of nature- blocking it out wherever possible with cars and radios, with iPods and covered walkways. We look to the radio to predict what the world could tell us in a heartbeat. We shut ourselves in gyms rather than enjoying nature’s space; watch pre-recorded television documentaries of nature’s magnificence rather than seek to explore it for ourselves. And when we do venture out? We package it with expectations and designs. And rarely, if ever, do we listen.
What could he tell us? And I see, as the afternoon unfolds, a continual production line of tourists arrive. They read the signs, point and, seeing little but a stationary figure- unwilling to ‘perform’, pass by. Some stay for a while, full of expectation for the gorilla to act as they believe a gorilla should act, and leave disappointed. Others jeer and dance. Some merely read the signs and barely glance at him, caged in front of them for their perusal. None stop to listen.
For it is the listening that escapes so many of us- listening to what remains yet unspoken. Listening to what a world, so much older and wiser might teach us. Listening.
And now I hear his calmness as he examines us all and asks us, “Why?”