One of my first memories of childhood was my dad taking me to the Riverdale Zoo, near the Don Valley in Toronto. It was an old style animal park built in 1894. I remember there were lots of cages and barred enclosures. Another time we went to a private zoo in Maine and I fed peanuts to a curiously charming caged chimpanzee. Much later, as an adult, I was shocked to see the very same primate; fingers grasping rusty bars, woefully swinging back and forth. Penning animals is controversial these days. Back when I was a kid humans had to be protected from the ferocious beasts. Nowadays it would be more appropriate if we kept the flora and fauna sheltered from our influences.
Oh we can be a barbarous species! How terrible is man who imagines two people fighting it out; last man standing. One on one sports like Boxing and UFC are signs of man’s depravity, packaged as entertainment. Being a peace loving fellow, I don’t see getting enjoyment from watching humans bloody one another while literally confined in a cage or ring. Crowds shout encouragement. We bet on a winner. We get trapped in a form of collective mass hysteria. We all lose.
Even the meekest among us can build our own personal enclosures. At their best these are places where we find comfort or security. If we are lucky we can decorate our homes to our choosing. We can make our private spaces reflect our personality while containing the things we need to survive or flourish. For those with less means, life itself can be confining. Through circumstance or plain bad luck some exist only in a place to escape from. We can sometimes feel trapped in the cages of our own minds. Temple Grandin famously built a hug machine contraption to find reassurance in a confounding world. What others saw as confinement, she found that the device gave her control within her unique autistic world.
It may be a zoo out there and we must learn to share it. There are occasions when misbehaving children are given a time out to think about their transgressions. My sons got used to the limits of a set of stairs until they realized the error of their ways. Older mis-deeders in our society go to prison, often for the wrong reasons and usually without positive outcomes. We can’t hope to correct the penal system until prisons become creative way-stations to a better life rather than models of going nowhere fast.
Having suffered from episodes of depression and anxiety, I can relate to those who find themselves in cages not of their own design. The experience of mental illness is a tiny world where the smallest things need to be protected, where others are to be feared. I admire those who find ways to free themselves of the constraints of conventional life. Folks who climb mountains, both real and metaphorical, have pushed against their personal boundaries. These adventurers have found space to breathe, to create and to live large.