Sunday, April 26, 2009


Deer, bats, foxes, and antelopes facing foreclosure in NYC

by Larry Geller

I was saddened to read that hundreds of animals may soon be kicked out of the Bronx Zoo. If they were to be set free, it would be an occasion for joy (after all, what did they do wrong, to justify their lifetime incarceration?). But no, they will likely be sent to other zoos.

There is no bailout even contemplated for them. Zoos face funding shortages along with other non-profits.

Reading the article cited below (hat tip to Viviane Lerner) brought back a flood of memories. Ready or not, here they come.

I am not a fan of zoos. I remember being taken to the Bronx Zoo a couple of times by my grandfather and my mother, but have no memory of anything inside. I think, even at a single-digit age, I was appalled by the cages and by seeing animals locked up. As a city-dwelling small kid, most likely my images of animals were formed by cartoons like Bugs Bunny, Porky the Pig, and Bambi (two cartoons on Saturday for 25 cents, free popcorn). I had never seen an animal locked behind bars outside of the zoo, or a bird that was not allowed to fly.

I still hold that view today and would not mind if all the zoos closed, or could be transformed into centers for saving and breeding endangered species, for example.

On the way back from the zoo one day my grandfather gave me a  metal Swee-Touch Nee tea box half filled with pennies. It was my assignment to fill the rest of it. I didn’t realize until some time later that buried in the box were also some buffalo nickels. Too bad I didn’t save them, they are probably recession-proof.

I chose other things to do when offered the chance to go to the Bronx Zoo, which seems to be about 114 years old now. I just didn’t want to go there. A lot of kids have passed through over those 114 years. I wonder how many felt as I did? Probably few, but you never know:

"I would be unhappy and mad [if the animals weren't here anymore]," Brandon Berkowitz said.

"If the animals go back home, that means they can say 'hi' back to their friends," Ariana Sandoval said. [WCBS, Cash-Strapped Bronx Zoo Lays Off Animals, 4/25/2009]

What I preferred to do was to stay with my grandparents a bit in their apartment. They both spoke Yiddish, a wonderfully expressive and beautiful language. I could understand quite a bit because my mother always spoke in Yiddish to my father when she didn’t want us kids to understand her. That proved to be an awfully powerful way to learn the language.

My grandfather would sit down with me and we would read (or, I would try to read) from a copy of the Yiddish daily Forward. That paper is 112 years old and now transformed to a weekly as Yiddish readers dwindled. They even have a website in English and Yiddish, and audio. I can’t understand a thing now, and it’s my loss.

In the center of their Washington Heights living room floor (beautiful real parquet) was a shiny brass outlet. Prying open the cover, I discovered a little valve that was used in ancient days for gas lighting. The plumbing was real brass also and looked like it was a thousand years old, though it was at the same time shiny and the knobs all worked better than ours did at home.

In the hall was an actual dumbwaiter with a rope. I think it was possible to put something in it and lower the dumbwaiter down to the basement. They wouldn’t let me play with it. Or take a ride in it. Being a little kid was somewhat frustrating. But I still had more fun than I would have had going to the zoo.

I also learned about unions from my grandfather and how they took care of their members. My grandmother became ill and passed away of cancer, and the union did everything they could for the family, including, I believe, cover the funeral expenses. My grandfather was not alone when he needed help before or after her illness. I think it was the ILGWU.

Unions were important. New York’s garment industry had been a maze of sweatshops. Unions, of course, fought for safe working conditions. Today’s younger generations don’t know anything about the Viet Nam war which dominated many of our formative years, and we didn’t know anything about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (3/25/1911), which was the largest industrial disaster in New York’s history (what in the world is a shirtwaist anyway??). The fire and the struggle to unionize the company were fresh memories even decades later, in New York’s garment industry:

The company employed approximately 600 workers, mostly young immigrant women from Germany, Italy and Eastern Europe. Some of the women were as young as twelve or thirteen and worked fourteen-hour shifts during a 60-hour to 72-hour workweek. According to Pauline Newman, a worker at the factory, the average wage was six to seven dollars a week, at a time when the average yearly income was $791. At most, Triangle Factory employees earned $338 a year.

By 1911 the Triangle Shirtwaist Company had already become well known outside the garment industry: the massive strike by women's shirtwaist makers in 1909, known as the Uprising of 20,000, began with a spontaneous walkout at the Triangle Company. During the strike, owners Blanck and Harris, two anti-union leaders, paid hoodlums to attack the protesting workers and hired prostitutes as replacement workers to show contempt for the strikers.

While the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union negotiated a collective bargaining agreement covering most of those workers after a four-month strike, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company refused to sign the agreement. [Wikipedia]

Conditions in the factories were awful. When right-wing pundits denounce unions today, just think of what working conditions would be like if workers could not organize.

Now, if only there were some assistance for the zoo animals. I hope they find good homes, the economy is tough right now.


Larry - Your reminiscences are very poignant and entertaining. Please feel free to write more about you childhood memories. While we might consider our own experiences droll, they might be very different than those of someone growing up in the islands, for example. Aloha

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