Monday, September 25, 2017

Is Containment Contentment? The Panther...

North-Chinese Leopard
I recently returned to the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris, and there I saw the magnificent cats, pacing their cages in much the manner described by the Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1878-1926), over a hundred years ago, when he wrote The Panther.

Today, there are no panthers such as the one observed by Rilke, in the Ménagerie. The largest beasts which had drawn in such crowds from the institution's creation in the 18th century - elephants, girafes, bears, hippopotami, rhinoceros, and of course, the big cats, to name but a few - have slowly been rehoused since the latter part of the 20th century. Zoos better able to meet the needs of these animals could thus satisfy the demands for a more humane approach to their confinement and well-being therein.

Nevertheless, smaller species of the panthera family still remain. And so it is that the snow leopard and the clouded leopard continue to haunt their enclosures, pacing continually. The exotic forms of these creatures ever sweep past a captive audience; we captors.Their soft padding movement, up and down, literally flattens a path that traces their motion, their automation only interrupted when the odd movement in a nearby enclosure catches their attention.

In a flash of feline energy, the animal instinct, dulled but never deadened, surges and the beast is transformed into its ancestral self; panthera - 'predator of all animals'.

Façade from art-déco Fauverie - 1937 -  René Berger
It is able to leap upwards instantaneously, when it so wishes. But in a cage devoid of any real activity, why would it be so inclined?

I am not against zoos as such. Man's madness has driven so many species of the animal kingdom to extinction that any means must be employed to maintain their mere survival, in many cases.

Snow Leopard
The Ménagerie obviously cares about, and takes good care of, all its charges, of that there can be absolutely no doubt. Proof of that also comes in the form of a newly-born North-Chinese leopard cub...

And yet the life of these big felines is one of containment and confinement. They may well be alive, but this is no life. Seeing the vital spark that can still be ignited by the simple sight of potential prey - here a neighbouring caracal family - you can only wonder why some form of virtual stimulation has not been invented for their use. Tiger, tiger burning bright... 

In short, as much as I was stunned by the proximity of these beautiful beasts, I truly felt sick at such a sight. The portrait of 'weary vision' and 'ritual dance' that Rilke painted was there in front of me, in the heart of Paris, in the 21st century. The Ménagerie has much evolved since Rilke's visit there, and yet the situation of some of its charges has changed little, or rather not enough. In his book Awakenings, the great Oliver Sacks wrote of the patients afflicted with Encephalitis Lethargica.
            "they registered what went on about them without active attention, and with profound 
             indifference. They neither conveyed nor felt the feeling of life; they were as insubstantial
             as ghosts, and as passive as zombies."

The scene below, from the film based on the book, Awakenings, even refers back to Rilke's Panther.

Unlike the other members of the Panthera family, the snow leopard cannot roar, and so it is literally silent in its confinement, unable to give voice to its existence.

                                             The Panther

                 His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
                 has grown so weary that it cannot hold
                 anything else. It seems to him there are
                 a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

                 As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
                 the movement of his powerful soft strides
                 is like a ritual dance around a center
                 in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

                 Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
                 lifts, quietly--. An image enters in,
                 rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
                 plunges into the heart and is gone. 
                 Rainer Maria Rilke (translation Stephen Mitchell)


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