At the Zoo, Animals Strut and Sob to Live Music
What's new at the zoo is the sight of musicians playing to enrich the lives of animals. It began in June at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo, where I watched Kubando the gorilla change from blas layabout to chest-beating sprinter doing a kind of conga-line kick as the music played.Skip to next paragraph
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I ducked when Kubie, as his friends call him, started throwing handfuls of pebbles and sticks across his moat. Not to worry, says zookeeper Jannine Jackle: "If he were aggressive, he'd look at you with lips tightened and throw directly - he has good aim."
Master drummer Ibrahima Camara and his partner were the musicians that day. He recalled forest village life in Senegal where certain rhythms were linked to animals. Here he was speaking through the drums, a succession of simple and then marvelously varied patterns:
"I look at a tree. I look at an animal. I say I'm here and you're here and we're in the same atmosphere. I want you to feel OK. My smile is for you. You can feel free. You are welcome, and I am welcome to you, too."
Can music be enriching to animals and players too? That's what Franklin Park is trying to find out with the unique pilot program that Carolyn Kelley hopes will encourage other zoos. The zoo's volunteer service manager and former director of Boston's Jazz Coalition, Ms. Kelley envisions a special musical work written for animals and toured from zoo to zoo.
She books improvising musicians - drums, trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, accordion - who play alone or in pairs for such animals as gorillas, zebras, and ostriches. Kelley says animals identify her now because they know she brings the musicians. She had to interrupt our phone conversation - someone calling to become a member of the zoo because of the music series.
"So far, so good," says general curator John Linehan. "We still look at it analytically and not necessarily as something they're all [the animals] enjoying."
He warns against anthropomorphism, attributing human emotions to animals. But it's a matter of individuality among animals as well as human beings, Mr. Linehan stresses. "Certainly primates know and individualize us."
And you can't stereotype gorillas' reaction to TV or music or anything else on the basis of one animal like Kubie. At 14 years old, he can act like a teenager, says Linehan. Before the music series began, Kubie sobbed when a nearby jazz band stopped playing. When he throws something, he may be frustrated at the moat between him and the musicians or simply "strutting his stuff."
"He's just showing off," said a child when Kubie made that chest-beating dash and kick. "That's OK," said her mother. "You show off."
Many zoos have used radio or taped background music in animal areas. (Top 40 was the favorite of the Allegheny wood rats being bred at the Baltimore Zoo.) And some zoos protect animals from musical events for "two-legged animals," as one official dubs human beings.
Zoo Atlanta allows no amplified music near the rhinos. Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo found that steel drum music made the wallaroos nervous. On Aug. 31, with due safeguards, the Los Angeles Zoo will offer Saint-Sans' "Carnival of the Animals."