During my first trip to Argentina in 2004, my bucket list included visiting the Buenos Aires zoo. This was not a wish born of an enjoyment of zoos. I actually believe they should be outlawed unless their purpose is to breed endangered species and/or to rehabilitate animals. I was bent on going because I wanted to see the black panther in captivity there; to read a Rainer Maria Rilke poem to it in order to feel the essence of one of my literary heroes.
Ode to the Panther
I had printed Rilke’s verses on a piece of paper I pulled from my pocket as I positioned myself in front of the cat’s enclosure. I squinted at the white page that had turned painfully bright in the summer light and began to read the poem “The Panther” aloud.
As Rilke’s words filtered out into the muggy air, the animal took to trudging around the circumference of his cage. The lids covering his golden eyes were droopy—whether from boredom or the heat it was impossible to know. As he morosely rounded the edge of the enclosure, he passed me by without even a glance in my direction, my ode to the panther creating a cadence he ignored as he circled his tiny compound:
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.
As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.
Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly—. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.
I studied him as my words petered off into silence and, almost as if on cue, he sashayed to a spot he had hollowed out under a copse of trees, his tail dragging in the dirt, and lowered his body into the shallow pit. Without so much as a glance in my direction, he closed “the curtain of the pupils” over his gorgeous golden eyes, and my heart broke for him, trapped as he was within such a sad prison.
I had first learned about the big cat from Assassination Tango, a gritty movie Robert Duvall wrote, directed and starred in as a vehicle to cast his wife, Luciana Pedraza, opposite him. She was born in Salta, and I believe the fact she is Argentine, which means Duvall knows the country as an insider, infuses the film with a powerful, edgy realness.
The Black Panther at the Buenos Aires Zoo
During the scene when I realized there was a black panther in the zoo in Baires, her character, Manuela, says of the animal, “To me, the panther is a symbol of elegance.” It was painful to witness how tattered that gracefulness had become, not just with the panther but with the zoo as well.
I left the big cat behind, wandering along the pathways to the exit. As I passed the varied fictitious environments created to portray exotic locales, I tried my best to appreciate the effort the city had put into trying to maintain the playful architecture given all of the economic strife that has crippled the country in recent history. But the truth is the buildings and their downtrodden surroundings only added to the melancholy I felt that such a magnificent beast had been so diminished. The elephant was the next creature to tug at my heart.
I watched as it loped along in circles, the area it had at its disposal tiny for its size. Then my point of view shifted suddenly—I had been seeing only flaking paint and chipped masonry; what if I looked past my own bias to see what charming storytelling tools the petite buildings with their imaginative details would have been when the zoo first opened on November 11, 1875—exactly 139 years ago today? It was a very different world then, after all, one that didn’t offer the opportunities we have for cultural exchanges now.
The Indian temple I was standing near, which served as the “home” for the weary elephant I was facing, had been designed after ancient ruins that would have inspired flights of fancy about India. For generations who had only books to serve as imaginative tools for exploring exotic cultures at the time, the introduction of home televisions decades away at that point, it would have been magical to see that setting. It was the same with the Chinese pagoda I approached, built to shelter red pandas, and with the castle complex housing the lions—all painstakingly designed to bring the countries the animals would have called home to life.
This is true architectural narration at its most imaginative and I was impressed by the care taken to express these stories, even if the green-space carved out of the Palermo neighborhood in the capital city’s sprawling downtown district had been allowed to deteriorate so raggedly. Since my afternoon there, I’ve read of protests being held outside the gates, organizations advocating for the humane treatment of animals demanding the zoo be closed.
The Call to End Victorian Zoos
I have to agree given that the compound is used mainly as a tourist draw. Zoo officials say they are rehabilitating birds and a small number of animals but the larger species in captivity there are languishing, seeming so depressed as to be cruelly tortured. My desire to lend my voice to the growing call to end animal confinement in Victorian zoos is only one reason I wanted to post this today. I also wanted to highlight that architectural storytelling is an art, and to make the point that when design and literature come together—as they did during my reading of a poem to an animal in an imposed habitat in a zoo—the experience can create a connection to a magical realm.
Imagining Rilke sitting in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris in 1903, at Auguste Rodin’s urging—feeling into his impressions of the panther in order to write one of his early masterpieces—was the impulse that propelled me to visit the zoo in Buenos Aires in the first place. The fact that I followed my intuition made the experience one of those plumb lines through literary history that I’ll never forget. Thank you for stopping by and sharing the memories with me.
Footnotes: To read another DesignLabs piece, one about a more overtly architectural odyssey I took during another trip to Argentina, visit adroyt and read my survey of Modernism in Buenos Aires. I’m exploring the “Emotionality of Architecture” on Architizer in a monthly column now. I hope you will stop by the site and take a look at my discussions with architects about the emotions they experience as they design the built environments we intereact with every day.
The Modern Salonnière and Ode to the Panther © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist. Her books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.by