Rabbi Jonathan I Rosenblatt
In the old Elephant House of the Bronx Zoo—a Beaux-Arts treasure from 1897-- the elephants are long gone. Today, a different giant is a featured star in that structure: the world’s largest lizard, the Komodo dragon. The zoo’s exhibit strategy for the dragons is unusual. Surrounding the ‘monsters’ are their smaller cousins from the monitor lizard family—there are sixty-nine species of which the dragons are the largest—including desert monitors, water monitors, and tree monitors. In other words, we are shown Komodo dragons in a family setting, among lizards of their same type. So why is this unusual?
Once upon a time, zoos were like living museums—or stamp collections. Each animal was shown near others of its type. Zoos took pride in the possession of full “sets”—all of the big cats, all of the species of bears, eight species of hornbills etc. And then the mission of the zoo changed from collector to protector of the world’s endangered wildlife. With that shift came the realization that the greatest threat to many species comes from habitat loss in their native lands. In order to engage visitors with the cause of conservation, zoos strove to move our imagination into the animal’s world, surrounded by the other creatures who share it. In other words, we meet animals in the setting of their neighborhood, their community, and imagine ourselves transported to those fragile, exotic ecosystems.
The Komodo dragons inhabit a series of small islands in Indonesia. Their neighborhood is shared with a fascinating array of island fauna, on many of which the lizards prey. And yet, none of these appear in the Elephant House. For their dragons, the Bronx Zoo--possibly the world’s most progressive zoo-- returns to the family-style exhibit, the stamp collection. Why?
There is a more urgent agenda with the giant lizards than environmental context. Their size, ferocity, and mystery—the very name, “dragon”—relegate them to the freak show of the animal kingdom. Long after other species—the big cats, the great apes, the whales—have been ‘normalized’, the Komodo dragons remain terrifying oddities. To imagine these creatures in their native habitats is to see them as the unchallenged mega-hunter, with no natural challenger, clawing, chewing, shredding, and even poisoning every possible quarry. This reinforces their ‘monster’ image and touches the darkest cavities of human terror, revulsion, and aggression, responses unlikely to transform the zoo visitor into Man the Custodian of the Planet.
And so, we are offered the opportunity to think of the Komodo dragons in an alternate setting, at a contrived family picnic, among related species of unmistakable resemblance, but each reflecting adaptations to their environments. The image of the Komodos comes into focus as a product of island gigantism, whereby species cut off from the mainland grow larger in order to occupy an ecological niche heretofore unoccupied on the island. The dragon is not a dragon; it is simply a jumbo monitor, resembling its lithe and comely cousins in all but scale. To love a dragon, one must see it as a member of a family.
Human beings often possess the same dual identities: community and family. The availability of sympathy depends on a shifting of the point of view. A daunting figure of authority can be softened by imagining him/her in the context of a family. That is why politicians appear with their spouses and children. And a family member—often encumbered by their childhood place in the family hierarchy—is encountered anew when the respect which they have earned in their community or profession is highlighted. That is often why milestone occasions, celebrated in the context of community, are so eye-opening to relatives. Who would have believed that our little brother is venerated in the hospital in which he works, that our quiet sister is a respected leader in her community?
When a relationship is stalled, when we are paralyzed by the ‘monstrosity’ of another, or locked into old roles dictated by ancient family dynamics, consider the Komodo Option: change the ‘exhibit’ style from neighborhood to family (or vice versa). A new look at an old friend, an annoying relative or a difficult colleague may locate in us new responses that can gift the relationship with a new beginning. It depends on how you arrange your zoo.