I went to Zoo Boise on Monday looking for a different kind of eclipse experience. I found it. But what I found was that the people were way more entertaining than the animals.
Director Steve Burns, occasionally sporting colorful eclipse glasses, was my tour guide. Walking through the zoo before the eclipse, people asked him what the animals would do. He had two answers, one teasing, one truthful.
Teasing: “The bats turn into vampires and the maned wolves become werewolves.”
Truth: “We have no idea.”
Other zoos around the country were putting on extravagant eclipse events, but Burns was wary. He didn’t want to create unrealistic expectations about animals exhibiting unusual or extraordinary behaviors.
He called it right. Of the animals that did act strangely, the low-key butterfly was the most dramatic. Even before we humans noticed a drop in the light, the butterflies had settled into place, as they do every evening as twilight approaches. That’s when birds become most active, Burns explained, and the butterflies know to minimize their chance of being a bird’s dinner meal.
The gibbons were noisy early, and whooped and called as the eclipse peaked, as they do in the morning. The birds got quiet. Crickets chirruped.
The staff sensed other different behaviors, but nothing very specific or dramatic. The nocturnal binturongs (also known as bearcats) didn’t come out. The lions may have roared, as they do in the evening, but that was in doubt. The tigers may have been more active.
But the humans were clearly exhibiting unusual behaviors, wearing outlandishly colored glasses and making excitable noises. With no customers in the gift shop, the staff sat outside with an unobstructed view of the sun. Zoo veterinarian Holly Holman built a pinhole viewer out of a Kix cereal box, just as she did as a kid to view the 1979 eclipse. Her own family had doubts as she worked on the viewer at home, but Monday morning she proudly displayed and shared her handiwork.
Volunteers Cindy Incelli and Marie Tompkins were thrilled to be able to see the eclipse at the zoo. And to able to get to the zoo.
Tompkins had worried that crowds and traffic might make that impossible. Like a lot of us, she chose not to brave the roads or campgrounds north of the Valley to get to the path of totality after all the Y2K-style semi-panic about crowded highways and facilities and runs on groceries and gasoline. “The hype, it’s so much,” Tompkins said. “People said, ‘I’m not going to go up with all that mess.’ ”
A lot of porta-potties, she mused, were going unused.
The animals may have yawned through the social/celestial experience of the decade/century, but the enthusiasm of the people more than compensated.
Too seldom in our times do we get a chance to experience a single event as a people. A presidential election, a 9/11 disaster, a Super Bowl — these are the few times we all pause to share such a moment of magnitude. Unlike the days when most of us had just three TV networks and one hometown newspaper to tell us about the world, today we’ve all got our customized channels, networks, web of friends and individually tailored bubbles.
Even in an election or a Super Bowl, we’re watching someone else. In the Great Eclipse of 2017, we each were the actors in our own Excellent Adventure. Totality awesome, Dude!
In the Selfie Age, we’re the stars of our own news feed. In this Super Bowl, we’re all Tom Brady.
Even at Zoo Boise, where obsession with animals is a job requirement, the focus Monday was on humans and their smartphones and Facebook pages.
Or, as gift shop clerk Kevin Holman observed: “The people were more interesting than the animals.”