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See the Wingless Bird!

Photo by James BunoanI don't know about you, but I've driven by the Santa Ana Zoo thousands of times without visiting it. I am ambivalent about zoos in the way I am about porn: fascinated with the beauty and wildness that may reside there but aware of the grim circumstances in which it is presented. Most porn gals wouldn't be showing you their hoochies if they weren't driven by economic need in an industry as heartless and exploitive as any Enron, and most zoo animals would prefer not to be caged.

The creation and popularity of zoos arose from the assumption that mankind is the bomb and that everything else was put in this world for our edification and amusement. Some folks have since been humbled enough by the universe to realize we're just a part of it all, that we and all other creatures great and small would get on better if mankind wasn't such boorish company at the world party—hacking and burning forests, destroying habitats, poisoning oceans, slaughtering species into extinction, consigning livestock to factory farms so nightmarish they make older farmers vomit, etc.

It is just such behavior that now provides zoos a kinder justification: they are a haven for species that can no longer hack it on our despoiled planet. That's not an especially heartwarming thought, either, but, Jesus, the zoo's there, and the animals are beautiful, inspiring things, even if they are kinda down in the dumps about their situation.

As well-cared-for as zoo animals may be—many zoos now array them in more natural habitats—you can't tell me there is a single caged lion that wouldn't rather be running free with a chunk of your shoulder in his mouth.

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If you can abide all that, the Santa Ana Zoo is pretty neat, except, I forgot to mention, for the fact that the reason you drive by the zoo so often is that it's right next to the Santa Ana Freeway, so the sleepy lemurs from Madagascar and all the other animals get to live with the anxious freeway whine 24/7.

I don't think the zoo has any lions. There is one large area that sat empty the day my wife, Leslie, and I visited, though maybe the zoo just maintains it to create the impression that, on days you aren't there, it contains a lion, tiger, bear, gorilla, chimp, rhino or practically any other animal you'd expect to see at the zoo, but don't at the Santa Ana Zoo.

They do have an Indian elephant. You can ride him for a few bucks, which may give kids the impression that her natural habitat is the Orange County Fair. The remainder of the zoo is populated by a variety of species whose binding thematic element, I suspect, is that the bigger zoos couldn't be bothered with them.

This is a good thing. In this era of grandiose spectacle, it's nice to be reminded that even the little forgotten critters—the gibbons, langurs and stinkbugs (honestly, the zoo has the largest assemblage of stinkbugs I've seen since I lived in La Puente)—have something to teach us. It's a nice, laid-back place where you can while away an afternoon for only $5.

But be forewarned: the Santa Ana Zoo also has the most haunting image I've seen in years. There is a bald eagle. He isn't caged. There is no restraining cord around his legs. He perches on a branch on the ground in his little area. "Why doesn't he fly away?" you wonder. Then he flaps his wings—or wing, since he only has one. Then you read the sign telling how he can never be returned to the wild because a human shot off the other wing.

And there he perches, flapping for the who-knows-how-many thousandth time, trying to fly and instead only losing his balance. I don't even know what it is in a beaked face that betrays emotion, but you can see frustration and anger there.

You don't see that pitiful sight on the presidential seal, but that crippled eagle looked to me like the damaged soul of America.

What other nation is so hard-assed that it can nearly drive its national symbol into extinction? Where else do nuts still take pot shots at endangered animals and vote for politicians whose corporate-dictated policies will ensure more species die-offs and the strip-mining of our purple-mountain majesties?

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Did you think for a minute that I wasn't going to talk about the election?

God, what an ugly day. I spent it working as an election officer, which meant working from 6:30 a.m. till 9:15 at night in a school auditorium (and, yes, school clocks move just as slowly when you're a grown-up as they did when you were a kid), helping folks to elect leaders I revile. Since journalists almost never sit on juries, I figure it's one civic duty I can do, plus it pays just enough to be insulting.

And it's also a good reminder to me. The other volunteers I worked with, I suspect, don't vote as I do. Most of the folks coming in probably don't: one conservatively dressed guy was griping about how, because of redistricting, he now had to vote for Dana Rohrabacher instead of Chris Cox, as if there's more than a pubic hair's worth of difference between the two.

And, you know what? These voters were mostly all nice people. They're not skinheads, or gun nuts or robber barons or fascists. They're just people trying to do the best they know how. In the process, they've probably damned us to a government that will blight generations: bringing irreversible environmental damage, eroded civil rights, a foreign policy that spawns more hatred in the world, and you can kiss your ass goodbye with an agenda-based judiciary that'll probably even jail you for that kiss.

How did this happen? How can nice people do this?

I think it's because fear sells and has now become our national commodity. In the weeks before the election, when the economy and other issues should have occupied the news, all we got were endless reports on bogeymen: Saddam and the snipers. The Republicans couldn't have had it better if they'd planned it, and in Iraq's case, they did, pacing their frantic war drum to the election, even while our own CIA and our allies' intelligence was telling us there was no al-Qaida link and no immediate threat. Then there's White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card's infamously cynical remark about the timing of the war push: "You don't launch a new product in August." When we're threatened from without and from within, who ya gonna call, except our own hard-assed hawks on the right?

It also doesn't help that the Democrats are fueled by fear. How was a voter supposed to get enthused about a party whose idea of unity is hiding under the desk when a controversial vote comes up? Whose Gray Davis is a human slot machine, except you can't be sure about the "human" part?

But there's a deeper malaise than that at work, a near complete disconnect where most Americans no longer act like Americans, no longer believe that their participation matters or can make a difference. They hunker at home and comfort themselves with TV fictions about people who matter and make a difference—but only with a gun in their hands. And meanwhile voter registration is down to about 60 percent of those eligible, only half of those registered voted, and the election was won by a little more than half that number, so the course of our nation was just determined by 15 percent of those entitled to do so.

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I finally got around to seeing Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, and when Moore wasn't being ham-handed or pestering poor old Charlton Heston, the film made the point that America runs on fear. Other nations have bloodier pasts and others have piles of guns: Why don't they have the homicidal gun mayhem we do? Moore showed us snippets of foreign news programs, which seemed designed for rational adults (and discuss complex issues such as genetic engineering at length), contrasted with U.S. news with its adolescent focus on street crime.

Even with the rise in crime under Bush (another undiscussed election issue), there's still less violent crime than there was a decade ago, yet people feel more threatened and buy more guns. On environmental policy, Bush tells us it would threaten our economy to adopt the wan protocols the rest of the world has agreed to. Guys with $3 worth of box cutters attack us, and we raise the amount poured down the military maw to $355 billion. How threatened and afraid can one nation be? When we abandon our own laws, our compassion, our sense of fair play for other peoples, what is left of the values this nation was founded upon? How many wings can an eagle lose?


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