The Tiger’s Wife and the Elephant’s Widow: Reflections on “Twiggy” at the Belgrade Zoo
A few weeks ago I read The Tiger’s Wife, a novel set in a fictional version of Belgrade in the 1990s. It’s a great book, whether you know anything about the Balkans or not; it’s more (bitter)sweet for a reader in Belgrade.
The book is about many things: coming of age in a time of war, familial love and secrets, and the understanding that some things, however strange, must be accepted as truth. Incredibly, the author winds much of the tale around tigers, including a tiger at the “not Belgrade” zoo.
The walk to the zoo will be quite familiar for Beogradjani:
…the crowded walk up the hill to the citadel park…there is the popcorn cart, the umbrella stand, a small kiosk with postcards and pictures…through the garden that runs the length of the citadel wall, framed with cages.
Last November, I walked through the Belgrade zoo. I strolled past the popcorn cart, the fortress walls, and the kiosks that now sell drinks and candy. I, like the narrator, smelled the musk of the wolves and the stench of the vulture’s meal. I love zoos, and was enjoying my trip. But my heart sank when I reached the elephant den.
“Twiggy” is kept on a small concrete pad. Her enclosure is dank. She repeatedly paces an exact pattern, a sign of repetitive stress disorder. The exhibit, and the animal, look depressed and tired.
Elephants need a lot of space; they roam up to thirty miles per day in the wild. Female elephants are social creatures that live in packs and help raise each other’s children. Twiggy has been alone since 1997, when her intended mate “Boy” died. (Though her widowhood might have been for the best—they never liked each other.) To say that this enclosure isn’t serving Twiggy’s needs is a major understatement.
I understand that the Belgrade zoo doesn’t have a large endowment. I understand that zoos are valuable tools for teaching us about the world and ecology; they highlight man’s role in preserving-and destroying-earth’s creatures. But I couldn’t understand how one could justify the elephant habitat in the Belgrade zoo.
This passage about an elephant in The Tigers’ Wife offered some insight:
Later on, we would read about how some soldiers found him near death at the site of an abandoned circus; about how, despite everything, despite closure and bankruptcy, the zoo director had said bring him in, bring him in and eventually the kids will see him. For months the newspapers would run a picture of him, standing stark-ribbed in his new pen at the zoo, an advert of times to come, a pledge of the zoo’s future, the undeniable end of the war.
Hope is found in simple images: a soldier’s return home; houses standing amidst earthquake rubble; a child smiling at an elephant. I’m not sure if that’s why Twiggy’s still here: is she a reminder that Belgrade is as good as any city, with a zoo like any other? If so, Belgrade doesn’t need that kind of reminder. It’s a wonderful city with a good heart and excellent people. But sadly, right now, it’s a terrible place for an elephant.