Bowel movements. Bathing. Reproduction. These are all normal, everyday activities (ok – maybe the last one isn’t everyday unless you’re in a new relationship with someone really hot), which require the removal of clothing. They’re performed behind closed doors. And if someone walks in on you while you’re in the middle of doing it (especially doing it), everyone is expected to die of embarrassment.
That’s what we’re taught as children, and that’s supposedly what we’re expected to teach our own children. Yet with the simple removal of just a pair of chromosomes, these private moments involving our very private parts and called “nasty” in the case of humans, become “nature” when talking about animals.
I had a friend whose toddler loved to reach into his diaper, scoop out a wad of poop, and then draw on his bedroom walls. If the baby was using oil colors, his parents would have praised him and named him Picasso, but since he was painting with stinky excrement, his hand was slapped and he was sent to the corner without dessert.
This apparently isn’t the case with man’s close relative – the gorilla. Last week I took my 7-year old son Jake to the zoo. Jake and a creature resembling Tarzan’s best friend were studying each other when he turned around, exposing his backside (the gorilla – not Jake). He squatted directly over the moat separating the primates from the humans and started to bear down, giving the onlookers a peek of nature at work. At first I thought the gorilla had been meticulously potty trained to poop into the moat, making the collection easier for the zookeepers in training who enter the zoo hierarchy on the bottom rung as poop-picker-uppers. But instead of letting his feces fall freely, the gorilla caught the lump in his hand and set it down beside him.
Then the gorilla pointed just like ET with his glowing index finger and he proceeded to play with the poop like it was some kind of fascinating new Play-Doh. The primate poked it and prodded it, then molded the middle of the dung heap, forming a little cup. Just when you’d think he was going to sip from it as if it was a wine goblet, he reached back around to his backside and caught yet another load as it squeezed through his anus. The gorilla set the second lump down next to his little cup and poked some more.
The crowd reacted like they were watching a violent bus crash – aghast and horrified, yet so curious they couldn’t stop looking.
Jake thought it was cool.
Later, we went to visit the zebras and found two that were particularly friendly, if you get my meaning. Since I haven’t yet sat down to explain to Jake how babies are made, my mind was racing with explanations for the zebras’ behavior:
- She’s giving that zebra a piggyback ride
- They’re playing bucking broncos
- She has an itchy butt and the boy zebra is helping her scratch it
- She’s just giving him a boost
- It’s a zebra game where they try to line up their stripes
Then we visited the yellow-backed duikers, which are small African antelopes. They weren’t doing anything to call attention to themselves until one started licking the other’s butt. That one didn’t mind, and before you know it, he was exchanging the favor by simultaneously licking the other’s butt as well. The duikers were obviously enjoying themselves tremendously.
I figured that in a couple of years when I explain the facts of life to Jake, I’ll bypass the description of that little option for fear that in math class every answer he shouts out will be “69!” Jake will have to figure the duikers’ experience out for himself, or rather himself and some other willing partner. I guess learning experiences like that one are what college is for.
Jake says that when he grows up he wants to be a zookeeper. It will be very interesting to hear what he ends up telling kids who are asking why the duikers are licking each other’s butts, why gorillas play with their poop, and if zebras really are just striped horses since they’re mounting each other and taking a ride.
Maybe he won’t give any explanation. He’ll just tell them it’s cool.