At the Zoo, Animals Strut and Sob to Live Music

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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:

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"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."

One-of-a-kind reactions

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."

But live music for the animals? "It's the first time I've heard of it," says Jane Ballentine of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. "But it sounds like a neat idea."

"One might say it is very interesting," says Chris Vere of Britain's Chester Zoo. The Chester Zoo has not had musicians deliberately play for the animals, but when animals have heard music - from military bands to Barney the Dinosaur - "it has not been deleterious."

Treetops, Kenya's famed game park, definitely does not play music for the animals: "We try to be as quiet as possible and encourage our guests to do the same."

But those animals are in their natural habitat. More and more, zoos are trying to enhance the lives of animals in captivity, says Ms. Ballentine.

She notes such enrichments as: giving chimpanzees logs filled with raisins to exercise their tool-using ability; giving polar bears chunks of ice to crunch on with fish frozen inside as a treat; and giving an old but mobile cougar a set of three levels, each with a different surface - gravel, sand, and grass.

Several zoos have elephants painting with brushes held in their trunks. They tend toward abstract expressionism, says Mike Waller at the Woodland Park Zoo, which was itself enriched when an elephant's painting went for $950 at a fund-raising auction.

Music is "low on the list" of possible animal enrichment for Lisa Stevens, who is in charge of large primates at the National Zoo in Washington. She finds music generally more negative than positive for animals. She would try natural forest sounds, perhaps with a device developed to permit animals to choose the sounds they want to hear.

"It's hard to read enjoyment in zebras and ostriches," says Linehan at Franklin Park.

And that's what drummer Bob Moses expected when he and saxophonist Stan Strickland, both recording artists, played sambas and the lovely song "Invitation" for the skittish zebras. "It was subtle," Moses says. "They didn't run away. They started twirling their ears."

An attentive listener

Moses recalls when he was playing vibraphone on his porch in upstate New York. A deer came out of the woods and "sat down like a dog" near the porch. Moses started in a quiet, new-age vein. But he found he could play "all kinds of crazy stuff Cecil Taylor everything" and the deer stayed for 45 minutes.

"We're always looking for ways to stimulate the animals," says zookeeper Jackle, "and we're delighted when someone from outside can help" - in this case, Moses, Strickland, Camara, and all the other musicians who visit the animals each Saturday and Sunday this summer.

I keep thinking of Kubie: When the music began, he was lying on his back, arms resting on elbows, hands dangling in the air, and he made a mighty yawn (not necessarily a yawn, maybe a friendly show of teeth). He turned over and put his chin on his arms. He scratched his head and picked his nose, a grand display of indolent indifference. Then came Kubie's first of several dashes along the moat.

Later, indoors, the reclusive gorilla Vip made a rare outing from his cave in response to the drums' welcome. And the undemonstrative Gigi came forward, changing her concert seat from time to time.

Only her zookeeper could tell: "Her eyes are wide, she's smiling. She really likes it."

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