The first advertisement I saw when I stepped off the plane in Vienna showed a picture of a panda and a stone structure with the word “Tiergarten” splashed across in big, white letters. “Animal garden?—must be a zoo.” They didn’t even have to be clever or eye-popping, I was sold. Finding out how much it cost to get in was only a temporary deterrent. Even our stern, snarky Austrian coordinator brightens at the mention of my interest in the zoo and told me that he, himself had a year pass.
A zoo is a funny thing to spend your money on in the midst of travel since most zoos are essentially the same as one another. They have their lions that are sleepy and usually far away from where you’re standing trying to catch a glimpse of them. They seem to have cages and cages of birds and reptiles that begin to blend together, and then you feel bad for thinking that, so you perk up and try to pay special attention to them just as the tanks end and you’re on to elephants and rhinos.
There are always odd sculptures of brass animals that, paired with cartoonish plastic animal effigies, are just screaming “take a funny picture with me!” There seems to be only mild variation in these themes and though the animal trivia questions may come to you in a different language, but the picture when you lift the little door will still tell you that indeed, tigers have stripes and that track belonged to a bear. The big stuff may be the same and a zebra may still be a zebra whether you’re in Washington, D.C. or Salt Lake or Vienna, but the zoo that is generously laid out on acres and acres of the grounds of the royal summer palace is, in its way, set apart.
Within the first quarter of an hour of our presence in this park, we witnessed a butterfly hatching out of a cocoon. First breath of new life and we saw it, up close and personal. The girl that was with me marveled at the sheer volume of potential life metaphors that the Lord managed to work into his creations. I marveled that the Viennese trust their patrons enough to have dozens of cocoons out in the open, within easy reach of inconsiderate, irreverent, and potentially lethal little fingers.
We named the new little butterfly ‘krinkle’ in honor of his wings that had not yet stretched and strained and spread to be at their optimum function. I saw myself in those crumpled wings, also in the shock of gorgeous red sheen that teased us from within the folds and promised to reveal itself with a little time and a little work later on.
We could have reached out and flicked him off of his branch before he developed the strength to fly, we also could have walked right into the seal tank and don’t even get me started on the elephants we could have poked at. The Viennese take great pride in art and things of pleasure, but they also remain largely reserved and keep to themselves. This zoo was an illustration of a people that keep their hands, arms, and legs within the ride without being asked to. This zoo wouldn’t last a week in America.
Schönbrunn Tiergarten is the oldest in the world and is interspersed with palace structures that have since been turned into cafés and greenhouses. They even have some of the original cages and a hike up to the crest of a hill so that you can see the city that was under the royal dominion of the inhabitants of this place (not the bears and monkeys—I mean the kings and queens). Walking through made me realize that my life has been abnormally full of strange run-ins with many members of the animal kingdom. From the time an emu stole my bottle as a baby to that elephant that sneezed on me during my elementary school field trip to that monkey that mistook my looking him in the eye as an act of aggression. He had to be restrained, and that was before I got bucked off an ostrich and after following a water buffalo put a leech on my leg.
The emperor that began collecting the animals that would inhabit this purported first zoo in the world, did so as a statement of man’s superiority and dominion over the animal kingdom. At the center of the zoo is a pavilion on top of which you could once stand and overlook the whole place. Surely, seeing beasts of burden and beasts of prey and beasts that are just beastly, within your personal captivity should give you a keen sense of your authority and control, but I left the zoo feeling small. I walked around totally in awe of the variety and ingenuity of creation.
I walked away in awe of a God who created stars in the heavens and big cats and elephants and weird water lizards with manes that I had never seen the likes of before and with all of this, he cares how I feel from moment to moment. With so many things to take care of and creatures in His dominion, it still matters to him whether I keep his commandments and what direction my life is going. I’m inspired by the artistic mastery that this portfolio of creation showed to me and duly touched by the empathy and emotion and humanity behind it. Among these marvels of the natural world, I walk away feeling not kingly or dominating, but capable. Capable with the same Creator behind me of becoming marvelous too.