You might want to sit and think a minute before taking your kid to see gorillas and the like.
Look what happened when I recently took my 2.75-year old to the Great Ape House at the National Zoo in DC. After a few innocent moments watching a mom gorilla carry around her four-month-old baby gorilla and sit in a big canvas swing ignoring us, a large male entered our field of view. He sat down, his back against an ersatz tree. Then, feeling relaxed I guess, he proceeded to take a large dump, catch it in his hand, raise it to his face and sit nonchalantly feasting on it for a good four to five minutes. Just munching away at it bite by bite as if he were working on nothing more unusual than a granny smith.
It was a pivotal moment. Pre-gorilla poo eating, I'd been able to protect little Eve from the dark and perplexing side of life. But post poo-eating, everything had changed. Eve looked up at me, clearly struggling with what was now suddenly an even more confounding universe. The few societal constructs of which she was aware were giving way -- I could see it in her eyes.
"We don't eat poop...?" she said. It was a statement, but also a question. All of this in the middle of potty training, no less.
"No -- we don't," I uttered. But that's all I could really muster, so floored was I by how scrambled her brain must be. Exposed to coprophagia, and so young! The first time I ever even conceptualized something eating its own poop, I was 35 and visiting the house of some pals who had a chocolate lab that seemed confused about things. But maybe I don't get out much.
Eve stared at the crap-consumption for longer than I would have liked. But so did I. And I learned on the spot that I'm not one of those moms who hurries her kids away from virtual car wrecks, but instead stands there taking snapshots, craning her neck and crowding people to get a better view.
"You don't really want pictures of that," admonished a teenage boy I had unintentionally nudged aside.
"Sure I do! Are you kidding?" I told him. "When am I ever going to see this again?" He moved away from me.
Eve couldn't look away either. I suppose she was modeling my behavior. Better that than modeling the gorilla's behavior.
Apes, orangutans and chimps. Half the time when one visits their enclosures one finds them acting like so many drunk rugby players -- eating crap, throwing crap, smearing crap on the glass, pooping from 50 feet up in trees, running around all willy nilly, playing with their genitals and of course copulating all over the place.
And yet, we are powerless to say, "Well, I never!" and then scurry out to see the zebras. We must stop and stare agog. Perhaps it's because gorillas are so close to us genetically; 98 percent of their DNA is the same as ours. They are of us, in us, and vise versa. I guess the turd-eating is part of that 2 percent differential.
But why? Why do they do it? Lisa Stevens, curator of the National Zoo's Great Ape House and Giant Pandas Exhibit, explained to me that sometimes the weather can bring it on. The day Eve and I went, it was gray and cool, threatening to rain. Bingo.
"Often, in the wild, they'll do it on rainy days, when, like us, they're hesitant to do a lot of moving from their night nest to seek food," Stevens said.
Yeah, but that's when I just order pizza or Thai, I told her. She scolded me for making the comparison. Then she moved on.
Poo-eating could also have something to do with the gorilla's diet and digestion, she said. They are vegetarians. Possibly, all the mulberry and maple branches that are hidden all around for them (called 'browse'), along with leaf-eater biscuits, don't fully digest the first time around and gorillas, god bless 'em, are just trying to get another crack at it. Either that, or they're just bored.
"It can be an I-just-want-to-snack-on-something thing," adds Stevens.
Yeah, but poop? Poop as a snack? Stevens said the zoo community really doesn't know why it happens; no extensive studies exist. But she pointed out that crap-eating is very common among mammals. Take, for instance, the rabbit, who must eat its own dung to obtain certain minerals or it will develop deficiencies and die. Nature, she is cruel to the rabbit.
So, why don't we do it? It might have something to do with the meat in our diets -- re-eating that and all its attendant bacteria could make us sick. Also at play: deeply ingrained ideas about how to stay alive.
"Ultimately, we are highly cognitive and highly social apes, and our social rules have predominated in terms of what's expected and what's not with regard to our bodily functions," Stevens said. "We are the most populous primate and we live in very congested and highly densely populated areas. A lot of our customs about urine and feces are about sanitation and are very important for us in terms of our survivability."
So, if I lived out in the country and was a vegetarian, it'd be fine? I might develop a taste for it? I didn't ask.
Speaking of urine, Eve and I didn't see this -- and that is our loss -- but Stevens said that great apes (that includes gorillas, orangutans, chimps and gibbons) also drink their own liquid output. But how, when, as Eve and I did see, they just pee on the concrete and it runs in rivulets all over the place? Stevens said that if a great ape feels like it, he or she will grab whatever bowl-like container is around -- a helmet, a cup -- and catch it in there, then drink. Sometimes they just fashion a bowl out of their hairy hands to facilitate their thirst-quenching. This would have been another head turner for sure, but not as big a shock, as people have been drinking urine for millennia. Not me, ok? Not me. But people.
Great apes are social creatures. Just as we like viewing their lives in action, they dig watching us, said Stevens. When the Ape House has to close from time to time, the gorillas seem different, Stevens said -- like they might miss us. But luckily for them, when the Ape House is open and they've had enough of us pointing and milling about in our ugly tennis shoes, there are private areas to which they can escape. This reduces the paparazzi effect for them, and any resultant Lindsay Lohan/Sean Penn behavior.
The gorillas, Stevens said, are far more low-key and reserved than their Great Ape brethren; not too much of what they are doing behind the thick glass is for our entertainment. But the orangutans? They are another story. Take regurgitation and re-ingestion. It's just what it sounds like, and orangutans are fans of it. It has never been observed in the wild; it's a zoo-life-only phenomenon. Stevens says it's likely done to get a rise out of onlookers.
"They will regurgitate onto the glass and lick it with great relish because they get all this attention," she said. In case you were wondering, they prefer to do this with sweet items like fruit.
The one thing gorillas do seem to do largely for our edification is 'paint.' Translation: smear crap on the glass. "If we laugh and interact with them at the glass, reacting more strongly for behaviors we consider inappropriate, that reinforces them to do it," Stevens explained.
And sex? Yes. If you've seen sex at the zoo, it was likely orangutans getting it on. Says Stevens, they are sexually precocious, and don't wait for the female to ovulate (like gorillas do), but instead do it almost daily, all month long, in various creative positions. In the wild, they are solitary creatures. When a male encounters a female, more often than not, he forces sex on her. There's lots of orangutan rape going on. Chimps? They're hyper-sexual too.
Humans and their reactions to the apes are not of interest to Stevens, except for when it comes to sex.
"It's rather amusing to me to watch visitors react. There are parents who use it as an educational opportunity, and then parents who move their child quickly away." She wishes she could tell the latter group to stay away from the tortoise area, where there's even more banging going on.
Our day at the zoo was edifying, to be sure. Eve is not likely to forget it. In fact, I know she won't because it comes up now about twice a week. And at some some really unfortunate times. Last weekend, the proprietor of our local sushi place came over to ask how the toro was, and Eve told him, apropos of nothing, "I saw a gorilla eat poop! At the zoo!"
"Did you tell him, 'No, no, no!'?" Chef Tao asked, laughing uncomfortably.
I wanted to jump in with, "No because, you see, the gorilla may be reabsorbing fibrous materials..." but I instead elected to just sit quietly and turn red.