I am lost at the National Zoo this leafy warm Thanksgiving weekend, somewhere near the bipedal red pandas, whose wedding-hat tails drape like wisteria from branches just 2.6 miles from the White House kitchen garden where puckered kale will soon freeze and curl, but closer I think to the source of sweet whiffs of straw and dung from another large species, which, even armed with prehistoric hide and horn, may also feel sad in this afternoon light, despite swarms of polyglot children squealing Bei Bei, soft wave of kids licking the glass, short slice of the 2.5 million visitors who’ve come to your zoo this year, even on Election Day when I was in a Philadelphia suburb, twitchy from the swing-state full-court press but not lost like now—skirting Small Mammals, searching for The Think Tank, wanting to see Batang kiss her new son, Redd, glimpse daddy Kyle brachiating overhead, orange as acid mine drainage, hoping that from his place in the sky he might be able to see through bamboo stands and light-wrapped trees, throngs of stroller pushers, zebra-stalking cheetahs, first-date nuzzlers, and point me to a place beyond the screechy flamboyance of flamingoes, higher, where I can see all 2016 zoo-goers at once, crowded against cages, spilling into the moats that separate us from beasts, and recount their sweet upturned faces, earnest otter eyes, extant and assembled, to picture them in sum—plus 365,000 more— scared, sandwiched together on Lion-Tiger Hill, rounded up with goats in the Kids’ Farm corral, waving from the roof of the Great Cats Gift Shop —who together are your Lost Citizens, the 2.8 million who each believed a vote was a voice that would be heard, each a peacock’s scream or lioness’ roar— soundstorm of animal certainty, derecho of deep human desire, so very sure our collective shout would have your impartial ear, rightly grab your untamed heart.
Deborah Fries’ first visit to the National Zoo in 1958 was clouded by tragedy: a toddler had been snatched and killed by a lion the previous day. Her most recent visit to the 127-year-old Smithsonian treasure was disquieted by flashbacks of big cats, the Cold War, and tragedies you didn’t expect. She is the author of two books of poetry. Her recent poems and essays can be found in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Grit, Gravity & Grace, 0-Dark-Thirty, Philadelphia Stories, Narrative Matters, and Poet Lore.