When I was 9 years old, I saw Ivan the gorilla at the B&I Shopping Center on South Tacoma Way.
His brown eyes bothered me the most. They gazed out at the pet shop customers dully, and I could imagine how my own eyes would look if I lived in Ivan’s “domain.” The concrete enclosure made it look as though he lived in an undersized shipping container.
In my 20s, I worked at an animal shelter, trying to care for and rehome pets in a job that pushed me to breaking. The abandoned and sometimes abused animals in those cages forced me to see how we humans too often injure other animals.
I remembered Ivan and my shelter experience recently as I talked to my friend Jim Christensen about his work as a volunteer at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. We discussed the painful subject of the elephants at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo and his mission as a retired science teacher to educate people about endangered animals.
“Many who visit a zoo,” he told me, “never get out into the wild any other way.” I could see by his careful words he knew not everyone would agree with his work, but he also felt a passion to help animals by donating his talents and time.
While I no longer work at a shelter and don’t pretend to know what’s best for elephants, I do try to support others like Jim. My friend Juliette Kern began fostering a dog found half-starved in the mountains a month ago. I am cheering her on and doing what I can to help her find a forever home for Baby Bear.
In my own small rescue effort, I found a young crow lying injured by the side of the road last summer. After a sleepless night thinking about him slowly starving, I drove him an hour and a half to the West Sound Wildlife Shelter on Bainbridge Island. A kind rehab worker spoke to me the next day, telling me that his back was broken. He had to be euthanized.
I spent a few minutes crying that day, but I still felt like in making his end a little less agonizing, I had done something worthwhile. I donated to the rehab center for good measure with an extra appreciation for the stress of the worker on the phone because of my own experiences working in the shelter.
The last time I went to the B&I, I took my husband and sons. The boys ran around, looked at the plastic toys, rode the aging carousel and took in the knick-knacks at the booths. Ivan and his brown eyes were nowhere in sight. The move to Zoo Atlanta in 1994 had been good for him and good for all of us humans, too. I felt a rush of gratitude to those who advocated for him.
Stella, the elephant character in Katherine Applegate’s Newbery Medal-winning book, “The One and Only Ivan,” said: “A good zoo is how humans make amends.”
I’m not often involved with the zoo animals to make those amends, and I don’t foster starving dogs. I will, however, continue caring about animals and cheering on those working to house homeless pets or volunteering with spotted leopards.
What I do might not be enough to save every crow or gorilla, but it breaks me out of my own cage of despair and into the light of action.
Karrie Zylstra Myton of Puyallup teaches at Bates Technical College and writes children's fiction. She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.