In the hot, desert climate of Dubai on the Arabian Peninsula, 20 penguins are living in comfort, say the managers of Ski Dubai, the first indoor ski resort in the Middle East. The birds reside in a climate-controlled environment, receive the best veterinary care, and never have to worry about lurking predators.
When you visit Ski Dubai, you can pay to have a “penguin encounter,” where you’ll be able to play with and touch the penguins. Representatives of the resort say that these animals are “ambassadors,” teaching patrons about their wild counterparts and the need to conserve their threatened natural habitat, Antarctica.
But can animals that have been born and raised in captivity and habituated to humans in unnatural ways ever be true ambassadors for the natural world? Can they teach us anything about the wild or move us to care for the environments from which they are so distantly removed?
“Your mother has been telling me for 65 years that miracles happen. I am now 84 years old, and I believe.” This is what my father said to me yesterday.
My father has been ill for several years. He spent most of the last year bedridden. One day a beautiful calico cat showed up. It was a wild cat. My dad fell in love immediately. It put a light in his eyes that had been dulled by the enormous amount of pain he has been in for years.
I will never forget the day I explained to my then four-year-old son that steak is really cow. First he cried, then he asked why we don’t eat dogs like our lab Lewis, or at least the lost dogs at the pound. I didn’t have a very good answer for that one. Which really got me thinking.
Despite a diet of organic, holistic dog food. Despite a pesticide-free yard. Despite daily exercise and plenty of TLC, our six-year-old dog Polar was diagnosed in October with osteosarcoma, an aggressive and indiscriminate type of bone cancer that leaves little time for weighing options.
I have a confession to make: For years now I’ve treated myself to wholesome, organic foods while buying my pets conventional pet food. Not off-brand mystery kibble or cat chow, mind you, but still. I blamed the cat; he’s a notoriously picky eater, and the one time I offered him a sample of “the good stuff” he turned his nose up at it and staged a hunger strike until I switched back to his standard 50-cents-a-can fare. I admit, I was secretly happy that he seemed to prefer the cheap stuff.
I’m officially crazy. Prior to my recent adoption of dog number three, I was only a suspected lunatic — the owner of two dogs, one cat and a rabbit; and, oh yeah, mom of three small children. Now my adoption of a third dog has confirmed my status as the neighborhood nut.