The Urchin At The Zoo by Christopher Morley

Story type: EssayI don’t know just what urchins think about; neither do they, perhaps; but presumably by the time they’re twenty-eight months old they must have formed so …

Story type: Essay

I don’t know just what urchins think about; neither do they, perhaps; but presumably by the time they’re twenty-eight months old they must have formed some ideas as to what is possible and what isn’t. And therefore it seemed to the Urchin’s curators sound and advisable to take him out to the Zoo one Sunday afternoon just to suggest to his delightful mind that nothing is impossible in this curious world.

Of course, the amusing feature of such expeditions is that it is always the adult who is astounded, while the child takes things blandly for granted. You or I can watch a tiger for hours and not make head or tail of it–in a spiritual sense, that is–whereas an urchin simply smiles with rapture, isn’t the least amazed, and wants to stroke the “nice pussy.”

It was a soft spring afternoon, the garden was thronged with visitors and all the indoor animals seemed to be wondering how soon they would be let out into their open-air inclosures. We filed through the wicket gate and the Urchin disdained the little green go-carts ranked for hire. He preferred to navigate the Zoo on his own white-gaitered legs. You might as well have expected Adam on his first tour of Eden to ride in a palanquin.

The Urchin entered the Zoo much in the frame of mind that must have been Adam’s on that original tour of inspection. He had been told he was going to the Zoo, but that meant nothing to him. He saw by the aspect of his curators that he was to have a good time, and loyally he was prepared to exult over whatever might come his way. The first thing he saw was a large boulder–it is set up as a memorial to a former curator of the garden. “Ah,” thought the Urchin, “this is what I have been brought here to admire.” With a shout of glee he ran to it. “See stone,” he cried. He is an enthusiast concerning stones. He has a small cardboard box of pebbles, gathered from the walks of a city square, which is very precious to him. And this magnificent big pebble, he evidently thought, was the marvelous thing he had come to examine. His custodians, far more anxious than he to feast their eyes upon lions and tigers, had hard work to lure him away. He crouched by the boulder, appraising its hugeness, and left it with the gratified air of one who has extracted the heart out of a surprising and significant experience.

The next adventure was a robin, hopping on the lawn. Every child is familiar with robins which play a leading part in so much Mother Goose mythology, so the Urchin felt himself greeting an old friend. “See Robin Red-breast!” he exclaimed, and tried to climb the low wire fence that bordered the path. The robin hopped discreetly underneath a bush, uncertain of our motives.

Now, as I have no motive but to attempt to record the truth, it is my duty to set down quite frankly that I believe the Urchin showed more enthusiasm over the stone and the robin than over any of the amazements that succeeded them. I suppose the reason for that is plain. These two objects had some understandable relation with his daily life. His small mind–we call a child’s mind “small” simply by habit; perhaps it is larger than ours, for it can take in almost anything without effort–possessed well-known classifications into which the big stone and the robin fitted comfortably and naturally. But what can a child say to an ostrich or an elephant? It simply smiles and passes on. Thereby showing its superiority to some of our most eminent thinkers. They, confronted by something the like of which they have never seen before–shall we say a League of Nations or Bolshevism?–burst into shrill screams of panic abuse and flee the precinct! How much wiser the level-headed Urchin! Confronting the elephant, certainly an appalling sight to so small a mortal, he looked at the curator, who was carrying him on one shoulder, and said with an air of one seeking gently to reassure himself, “Elphunt won’t come after Junior.” Which is something of the mood to which the Senate is moving.

It was delightful to see the Urchin endeavor to bring some sense of order into this amazing place by his classification of the strange sights that surrounded him. He would not confess himself staggered by anything. At his first glimpse of the emu he cried ecstatic, “Look, there’s a–,” and paused, not knowing what on earth to call it. Then rapidly to cover up his ignorance he pointed confidently to a somewhat similar fowl and said sagely, “And there’s another!” The curious moth-eaten and shabby appearance that captive camels always exhibit was accurately recorded in his addressing one of them as “poor old horsie.” And after watching the llamas in silence, when he saw them nibble at some grass he was satisfied. “Moo-cow,” he stated positively, and turned away. The bears did not seem to interest him until he was reminded of Goldylocks. Then he remembered the pictures of the bears in that story and began to take stock of them.

The Zoo is a pleasant place to wander on a Sunday afternoon. The willow trees, down by the brook where the otters were plunging, were a cloud of delicate green. Shrubs everywhere were bursting into bud. The Tasmanian devils those odd little swine that look like small pigs in a high fever, were lying sprawled out, belly to the sun-warmed earth, in the same whimsical posture that dogs adopt when trying to express how jolly they feel. The Urchin’s curators were at a loss to know what the Tasmanian devils were and at first were led astray by a sign on a tree in the devils’ inclosure. “Look, they’re Norway maples,” cried one curator. In the same way we thought at first that a llama was a Chinese ginkgo. These errors lead to a decent humility.

There is something about a Zoo that always makes one hungry, so we sat on a bench in the sun, watched the stately swans ruffling like square-rigged ships on the sparkling pond, and ate biscuits, while the Urchin was given a mandate over some very small morsels. He was much entertained by the monkeys in the open-air cages. In the upper story of one cage a lady baboon was embracing an urchin of her own, while underneath her husband was turning over a pile of straw in a persistent search for small deer. It was a sad day for the monkeys at the Zoo when the rule was made that no peanuts can be brought into the park. I should have thought that peanuts were an inalienable right for captive monkeys. The order posted everywhere that one must not give the animals tobacco seems almost unnecessary nowadays, with the weed at present prices. The Urchin was greatly interested in the baboon rummaging in his straw. “Mokey kicking the grass away,” he observed thoughtfully.

Down in the grizzly-bear pit one of the bears squatted himself in the pool and sat there, grinning complacently at the crowd. We explained that the bear was taking a bath. This presented a familiar train of thought to the Urchin and he watched the grizzly climb out of his tank and scatter the water over the stone floor. As we walked away the Urchin observed thoughtfully, “He’s dying.” This somewhat shocked the curators, who did not know that their offspring had even heard of death. “What does he mean?” we asked ourselves. “He’s dying,” repeated the Urchin in a tone of happy conviction. Then the explanation struck us. “He’s drying!” “Quite right,” we said. “After his bath he has to dry himself.”

We went home on a crowded Girard Avenue car, thinking impatiently that it will be some time before we can read “The Jungle Book” to the Urchin. In the summer, when the elephants take their bath outdoors, we’ll go again. And the last thing the Urchin said that night as he fell asleep was, “Mokey kicking the grass away.”

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