There are lots of people who enjoy people watching. It’s a source of entertainment for them. Many of us are that way, myself included, but it is not a pastime I ever associated with animals. Maybe I should have, but somehow, the idea never crossed my mind. Oh sure, we know that our pets watch us for clues about what is going to happen, such as is it time to go for a walk, or a ride in the car, or if they jump on our laps, will we pet them. That is not really people watching, but rather owner watching. There are other animals who like to watch people, however.
Yesterday, I read an article about the Lake Superior Zoo, in Duluth, Minnesota. That one caught my eye, because I was born in Superior, Wisconsin…just over the bridge from Duluth, but as I looked around the internet, I saw that the same situation is going on in many zoos. The animals miss the people who come to the zoo. I really never gave any thought to the idea of the zoo animals watching the people who are watching them, but the do. They are interested in the goings on of humans!! Shocking, but it’s true. I guess that it is more than just the humans who are adversely affected by the quarantines and shut-downs.
The zoo keepers are finding themselves being the entertainment for the animals, and it’s not just for something different to do, it’s necessary. Like people, the animals need mental stimulation to stay healthy. Many beings, especially those in zoos, have been locked up during this time. We have talked about the elderly people in nursing homes, or even in their own homes, who can’t have visitors, and how very lonely they have become. Sadly, the animals in the zoos feel the very same way, and until the shutdowns cease, there is little that can be done about it. The job of a zookeeper is an essential one, and it’s a good thing, or these animals would see no one. One of the zookeepers at the Lake Superior Zoo, Lizzy Larson said, “You guys as visitors are the main sources of entertainment for the animals at the zoo. As much as we like watching the animals through the glass or behind a fence, they also love watching us. We walk by, we do things. It’s really exciting for them to see us.” That is a strange thought for me, but I guess it makes sense. It makes me feel sad for them, because while we at least know the reasons for the closures, they don’t, they just know that no one is coming to see them.
Before Bob and I were even married, I knew that he was related to one of our presidents…namely James Knox Polk. Since then, I have found that we are actually related to several presidents, but James K Polk remains the one with whom the link seems the most obvious. Still, while I knew of the relationship, there were things about him that I didn’t know. One of the most notable being his connection to the Smithsonian Institution. In 1829, one James Smithson died in Italy, and while most people would not think that would have impacted the United States of America, it actually did. So, who was Smithson anyway. Smithson had been a fellow of the venerable Royal Society of London from the age of 22, publishing numerous scientific papers on mineral composition, geology, and chemistry. In 1802, he overturned popular scientific opinion by proving that zinc carbonates were true carbonate minerals, and one type of zinc carbonate was later named Smithsonite in his honor.
James Smithson’s will had one odd footnote to it, that in the end, would change everything. Smithson didn’t have much family, in fact, he had just one nephew at the time of his passing. His entire estate was willed to that nephew, with one condition attached to it. If his nephew should die without children, the entire estate was to go to “the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Smithson’s curious bequest to a country that he had never visited garnered significant attention on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. James Smithson was a scientist, who wasn’t well known, but he apparently had a dream for the United States…a country that somehow held his interest. Six years after his death, his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, indeed died without children, and on July 1, 1836, the United States Congress authorized acceptance of Smithson’s gift. President Andrew Jackson sent diplomat Richard Rush to England to negotiate for transfer of the funds, and two years later Rush set sail for home with 11 boxes containing a total of 104,960 gold sovereigns, 8 shillings, and 7 pence, as well as Smithson’s mineral collection, library, scientific notes, and personal effects. After the gold was melted down, it amounted to a fortune worth well over $500,000.
The money was sent to the United States with Smithson’s instructions for its use. It might have seemed like a simple request at the time of the will’s writing, but in the end, the money would sit in the bank waiting for a decade. The reason…a debate on how to use the money. Apparently, even though instructions for the money’s use were given, they did leave a few of the details up to the United States government. Finally, on this day August 10, 1846 James K Polk signed the Smithsonian Institution Act into law. After considering a series of recommendations, including the creation of a national university, a public library, or an astronomical observatory, Congress agreed that the bequest would support the creation of a museum, a library, and a program of research, publication, and collection in the sciences, arts, and history.
Today, the Smithsonian is composed of 19 museums and galleries including the recently announced National Museum of African American History and Culture, nine research facilities throughout the United States and the world, and the national zoo. Besides the original Smithsonian Institution Building, popularly known as the Castle, visitors to Washington DC, tour the National Museum of Natural History, which houses the natural science collections, the National Zoological Park, and the National Portrait Gallery. The National Museum of American History houses the original Star-Spangled Banner and other artifacts of United States history. The National Air and Space Museum has the distinction of being the most visited museum in the world, exhibiting such marvels of aviation and space history as the Wright brothers’ plane and Freedom 7, the space capsule that took the first American into space. John Smithson, the Smithsonian Institution’s great benefactor, is interred in a tomb in the Smithsonian Building. It has been a pretty amazing use of that money. I think James Smithson would be pleased.
Families have long loved to visit places like museums and zoos. It give them a chance to have an outing with the kids whereby they are out of the house, and yet learning something too. My grandmother, Anna Schumacher Spencer was no exception to that rule. For the first ten years of her eldest child, my Aunt Laura Spencer Fredrick’s life, Grandma didn’t have any other children. I’ve never known just why that was. The family history doesn’t tell of miscarriages or lost babies, but until my Uncle Bill Spencer came along, ten years after his sister, Laura, and then was quickly followed by brother, Allen Spencer (my dad), and then Aunt Ruth Spencer Wolfe, that was simply the case. Grandma and Aunt Laura were very close, and did lots of things together. The pictures of that time frame show visits with family, time spent picking flowers, and a trip to the zoo, which brings me to my story.
As I said, Grandma was very close with her daughter, and took lots of pictures of her and with her. Because of that closeness, she didn’t pay as much attention to the things or animals around Aunt Laura, but rather paid attention to Aunt Laura in the photo. It really was a matter of what subject she felt was the most important in the picture…obviously for Grandma that was Aunt Laura. She wanted to be able to tell of all the events of Aunt Laura’s young life, and Grandma did a great job of that.
As Uncle Bill began going through all the pictures and writing up the family history, he came across many pictures that rather frustrated him. That’s where his opinion on the pictures Grandma had taken came out. It wasn’t that Uncle Bill didn’t like the pictures of his sister, because he did…they were very close as children. The problem for him occurred with the picture of his sister, Laure standing by a cannon. Needless to say, I have to agree with Uncle Bill to a large degree. While the pictures of Aunt Laura with the zoo animals are great, I didn’t know what the cannon was at all, until Uncle Bill clarified that for me. Instead of taking the picture with a side view of the cannon, Grandma has taken it with a back view. It was pretty much impossible to know what it was without being told or maybe having a background that clarified it for you. Uncle Bill was rather annoyed, and commented on the picture with, “Come on Mom!”
That picture wasn’t the only one that Uncle Bill was upset with either. Another picture that was very good, but was not taken by Grandma, irritated him nevertheless. It was a picture marked only as, “Mother’s niece.” I’m sure that, like most people, Grandma figured that she would always know who it was, but what she wasn’t thinking about was that the rest of the people, who would someday look at the picture, would never know who it was. Again, it was a matter of what Grandma saw as important and what Uncle Bill saw as important. Sadly, Grandma is gone now, so we cannot ask who this niece might have been. She didn’t mean to do these things to upset her son, of course, it was just that what she saw and what he saw as important, were two very different things. And in this case, quite upsetting to my uncle.
Most kids love to go to the zoo, and it is a special treat if they have to go to some other town to go, such as visiting relatives. I don’t recall going to the zoo as a kid, but I’m sure we must have. I remember taking my girls to the zoo in Denver, and they loved it. These days the zoo usually even includes the aquatic area. You can go and spend the whole day there.
Back when my Aunt Laura was a little girl, the zoo was very different than it is now, but the draw was the same. When a child can find themselves so close to wild animals, it is as much a rush as it is for adults. For Aunt Laura, this was a red letter day. I think it was for my grandmother as well, because she wanted pictures to remember the event. I have to wonder what a zoo looked like back then…was it primitive, with just fenced areas around the animals’ habitats, or was that just what the particular area they were at when the picture was taken. My guess is that no matter what it looked like, my Aunt Laura was beside herself with excitement to be going. I know that is how I would have felt at her age. I can imagine how wonderful the day was for a little girl. Strolling along in the sunshine with her mom, looking at all the different animals. It must have been almost like a class field trip for her, except that she was not in school.
These days, the zoo is pretty much a common thing. Most people have been to one at some time in their lives. But back then, not so much. For my Aunt Laura, it was a day she would always remember, and I think it felt that way for her mother too. It appears to have been a ladies day out with family, and that probably made it even more special. Nevertheless, the most special thing to any kid is going to be the animals. There is always time to be excited about being with relatives, after all. But the Zoo…well, that’s the coolest thing ever!!