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File Under: Lessons Learned from an Ancient Aldabra Tortoise

So I made some new friends today. Some were fellow attorneys and their families - we all joined together today to volunteer at The Knoxville Zoo and help clean up their greenhouses and myriad plants that needed repotting and that sort of thing. From one perspective, it was a mild-but-dreary November morning with steady drizzle and mud all around. From another perspective, it was a gentle morning with the blessing of rain, and all the humans involved seemed to have a good time while being productive and of service to our community.

But I didn't sign up to help at the Zoo this morning to bond with my fellow humans. I signed up to have the oppoortunity to get a 'behind-the-scenes' view of some lovely exotic animals.

I have mixed views on keeping animals in zoos. On the one hand, if humanity continues to be so incredibly arrogant and short-sighted as to murder exotic animals for "trophies" - such as their tusks or hides or some such macabre thing - the only way future generations will be able to see an elephant or rhinocerous or the like is AT a zoo! Selfish humans! On the other hand, wild animals kept in captivity rarely ever live their life in anything close to a similar environment as they enjoy in the wild, thus the notion of keeping animals locked up for the pleasure of humanity being akin to outright animal abuse is not too far-fetched.

But today I tried very hard to turn my brain off of the "right vs. wrong" analysis and just enjoy being in close proximity to some of the most magnificent creatures God ever made. Would I get to see lithe tigers up close? Would we get a "behind the scenes" look at the elephants? Ooooh - maybe zebras!!! Here's a question - why don't wildebeasts qualify as exotic enough to be in most zoos? They are magnificent creatures and far more fancy than an ordinary cow. But I digress . . . I hoped our visit would not be to the primates. I don't have anything against primates, they're just not my favorite.

As we finished up our volunteer work session, I realized I was quite soaked from the rain and my hands (and chin, too, I discovered later while standing in front of a mirror) were covered in wet, clingy potting soil, so I walked up a back path per instructions towards the nearest restroom. I have some friends in Texas who lived in London for several years; the British call a restroom break a "comfort break" and I think that's the most charming nomenclature for nature's call I've ever heard, so I stole the phrase from them and hope it catches on here in the States. But, again, I digress . . .

As I was walking to take my "comfort break," I passed a cage area and a shadowy creature stood guard at the entrance. I've read about this creature before, but seeing a real, live wolf only a few feet away from me brought up unexpected emotions. Curiousity, at first - was it a wolf, a coyote, or some other type of canine? Once I studied its form enough to feel fairly confident in my analysis, next came awe. This wolf's eyes were not brown or blue like a dog's eyes; they were two burning orbs of amber. Mesmerizing gold. He never blinked and he never turned away. He was caged, but he was not tame by any definition. He was magnificently untamed, unbroken, and - worried. I noted the questions behind the flames: "Why am I here? Why am I caged? Why am I not free? Can you please help me go home?"

The last question broke my heart, and I began to slowly walk on up the path. The wolf followed alongside in his cage, never taking his eyes off me. I found myself talking to him, telling him how magnificent he was, and how sorry I was that he was confined, and yet how grateful I was to him for the opportunity to share a moment in his presence, close enough so I could discern the spectrum of colors that comprised his thick, beautiful fur - white, brown, tan, and so many, many greys. I told him he was a very noble wolf and that God loves him dearly. Surely God particularly loves the animals we humans have manipulated for our purposes. I believe that whole thing in Genesis about, "dominion over the earth" means we must be very kind and wise stewards of this earth and these lovely creatures.

On my return journey down the path, my wolf friend and I again shared our parallel walk together, and again I spoke out loud to him and tried to convey gratitude and appreciation for his magnificence.

And then it was time.

Time is an interesting construct. Standard time. Daylight time. Time for bed. Time to get up. Time. What an odd notion. Especially to a tortoise who has lived three half-centuries.

"Big Al" is THE senior citizen at the Knoxville Zoo. Big Al - the Aldabra Tortoise - arrived in Knoxville in the 1970s, and he is one hundred and fifty years of age. Al was around at the time of Abe. Abe Lincoln. Al has survived about a dozen wars, as humans mark history. Al is large, small, hard, soft, old, young, and ageless. He is also a bit of a ham who loves humans, apparently. According to Heather, the tortoise keeper at the zoo, Al gets a bit depressed during the winter months when he and his fellow tortoises have to be placed in their own hot house, of sorts - a lovely greenhouse structure with plenty of light, heat, and clean space so a tortoise can hang out in style. Al stopped eating to greet his guests, but his fellow tortoises - including fellow centenarian Aldabra Tortoise "Tex" - were happily absorbed in the moment, munching on pumpkins.

I felt the wonder of being a young child again as I introduced myself to Al. I stroked his leathered neck and sculpted head. I felt the fluted edges of his enormous armored home/shell on his back. I ran my hands down his legs and feet and around his thick toes and had to remind myself not to try and lift his foot as I would one of my horses. What a stunningly wonderful creature is a tortoise! Big and massive and slow and eternal and wise and whimsical and - in a word, delightful! I wanted to sit with Al and his friends for hours. They are silent creatures who speak volumes. Old tortoises are totally zen, man.

Heather told me Al really misses his adoring public when he's in his winter home - this lovely greenhouse/turtle barn where the public may not come. But volunteers can! Heather said one of Al's winter buddies comes and reads the paper to Al. Al and the Wall Street Journal. I wonder what Al thinks of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner? Or the current roster of Presidential candidates? Or climate change? I bet Al would like someone to read Dr. Seuss to him. Al seems like one sharp mind, so it stands to reason he would appreciate the wisdom of Seuss. Or maybe Lao Tzu. Or even John Rawls. Wonder what Al's take on the "Theory of Justice" might be? Hmmm.

Maybe I need to volunteer at the Knoxville Zoo this winter. Maybe I need to take a chair and a good book and spend a little time each week in a warm plastic house with a tortoise that is three times my age. Betcha such an ancient mind would have a whole host of "lessons learned . . ."

But is 150 really that old?

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