Ollie the Bobcat, Whirlwind of Light

Ollie, the National Zoo bobcat


And now for some good news: Ollie, the National Zoo’s escapee bobcat, has returned and is once again in captivity. I can thank a novel—namely Yann Martel’s Life of Pi—for my prediction that she would actually return to the zoo on her own.

So for those of you who dreamed of her roaming wild and free—well, the zookeeper in Martel’s novel has your number:

Well-meaning but misinformed people think that animals in the wild are “happy” because they are “free.” These people usually have a large, handsome predator in mind, a lion or a cheetah (the life of gnu or of an aardvark is rarely exalted). They imagine this wild animal roaming about the savannah on digestive walks after eating a prey that accepted its lot piously, or going for callisthenic runs to stay slim after overindulging. They imagine this animal overseeing its offspring proudly and tenderly, the whole family watching the setting of the sun from the limbs of trees with sighs of pleasure. The life of the wild animal is simple, noble and meaningful, they imagine. Then it is captured by wicked men and thrown into tiny jails. Its “happiness” is dashed. It yearns mightily for “freedom” and does all it can to escape. Being denied its “freedom” for too long, the animal becomes a shadow of itself, its spirit broken. So some people imagine.

Here’s what animals really want, which helps explain Ollie’s return:

Don’t we say, “There’s no place like home”? That’s certainly what animals feel. Animals are territorial. That is the key to their minds. Only a familiar territory will allow them to fulfill the two relentless imperatives of the wild: the avoidance of enemies and the getting of food and water. A biologically sound zoo enclosure—whether cave, pit, moated island, corral, terrarium, aviary or aquarium—is just another territory, peculiar only in its size and in its proximity to human territory. That it is so much smaller than what it would be in nature stands to reason. Territories in the wild are large not as a matter of taste but of necessity. In a zoo, we do for animals what we have done for ourselves with our houses: we bring together in a small space what in the wild is spread out. Whereas before for us the cave was here, the river over there, the hunting grounds a mile that way, the lookout next to it, the berries somewhere else—all of them infested with lions, snakes, ants, leeches and poison ivy—now the river flows through taps at hand’s reach and we can wash next to where we sleep, we can eat where we have cooked, and we can surround the whole with a protective wall and keep it clean and warm. A house is a compressed territory where our basic needs can be fulfilled close by and safely. A sound zoo enclosure is the equivalent for an animal (with the noteworthy absence of a fireplace or the like, present in every human habitation). Finding within it all the places it needs—a lookout, a place for resting, for eating and drinking, for bathing, for grooming, etc.—and finding that there is no need to go hunting, food appearing six days a week, an animal will take possession of its zoo space in the same way it would lay claim to a new space in the wild, exploring it and marking it out in the normal ways of its species, with sprays of urine perhaps. Once this moving-in-ritual is done and the animal has settled, it will not feel like a nervous tenant, and even less like a prisoner, but rather like a landholder, and it will behave in the same way within its enclosure as it would in its territory in the wild, including defending it tooth and nail should it be invaded. Such an enclosure is subjectively neither better nor worse for an animal than its condition in the wild; so long as it fulfills the animal’s needs, a territory, natural or constructed, simply is, without judgment, a given, like the spots on a leopard. One might even argue that if an animal could choose with intelligence, it would opt for living in a zoo, since the major difference between a zoo and the wild is the absence of parasites and enemies and the abundance of food in the first, and their respective abundance and scarcity in the second.

I’m trying to figure out if this understanding diminishes the power of a wonderful bobcat poem by Mary Oliver. She certainly is far more excited by the glimpse she gets of a bobcat in the wild than she would be seeing one in a zoo.

In Oliver’s vision, we are on a long road to depression and death. Or to choose another image from her bobcat poem, we are lost in the cold Canadian wilderness, where trees are as thick as castles and as cold as iron. Is the truth of life, she wonders, “miles alone in the pinched dark”?

Or is the truth rather those fleeting but ecstatic moments when we catch a glimpse of a bobcat in our car headlights? After seeing the bobcat and feeling “the wound of delight”—wound because beauty undermines our defenses and makes us vulnerable—suddenly the whole world seems white, not black. The “blazing” lynx in the cruel snow towards which we are driving is our reactivated heart, daring us to feel again. We push forward into that promise:


By Mary Oliver

One night
 long ago,
   in Ohio,
     a bobcat leaped
like a quick
   whirlwind of light
     from the pines
beside the road
 and our hearts
   thudded and
those lightning eyes!
 that dappled jaw!
   those plush paws!
     In the north,
we’ve heard,
 the lynx
   wanders like silk
     on the deep
hillsides of snow–
   it lounges in trees
    as thick as castles,
as cold as iron.
 What should we say
   is the truth of the world?
    The miles alone
in the pinched dark?
 or the push of the promise?
   or the wound of delight?
    As though in a dream
we drive
 toward the white forest
   all day,
     all night.

Ollie is waiting.

This entry was posted in Martel (Yann), Oliver (Mary) and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!