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Where the Wild Things Are

Zoo: An excellent place to study the habits of human beings. — Evan Esar

The sky was clear and the air was an agreeable 68 degrees — ideal conditions for visiting the zoo. When I renewed my membership a few months ago, I did so as a “single” — David rarely joins me, and all of my critter-loving friends already have memberships. But, as this was a special occasion — not one of my typical visits, during which I gawk at the meerkats and monkeys for hours — David was by my side. This time, I was there to attend the opening ceremony for the revamped Polar Bear Plunge exhibit, an occasion that, fortunately for my date, had specific start and end times.

Once we’d checked in, I led David to the left, toward the Skyfari ride, which would take us up and over the park and deposit us near the polar bears. We’d only taken a few steps when I sidled closer to him and said, “Psst! A White She Devil is right behind us; don’t turn around, you might spook her.” I knew I didn’t have to explain — we’ve both seen Undercover Brother countless times, and the White She Devil, a.k.a. Penelope Snow, played by Denise Richards, is one of our favorite characters in the super-campy flick. And there she was, Denise Richards herself, ten feet behind us.

“What’s she doing?” David asked.

“Walking. With her kids and an older dude who I think is her manny,” I said. “Wow, she’s even prettier in person. I said don’t look! She’s hopping on the tram to the polar bears. You’ll have a chance to see her when we get there.”

A green carpet had been laid at the entrance to the polar bear exhibit (most likely because the color green conveys environmental piety…but I couldn’t help but wonder if it also might have something to do with the potential that “red on white” has for evoking images of arctic horror shows). On the carpet were signs marking the spot each media outlet — Us Magazine, Access Hollywood, etc. — had staked for its camera operators.

“The tour will begin in the storybook area,” intoned a disembodied male voice, piped through speakers set up around the exhibit. I followed David’s Panama hat through the crowd, to a play area containing two silver sculptures of polar bears and giant children’s books. As we awaited further instructions, I stood and watched a handful of kids climb onto one of the statues while a man, who I presumed was their father, shot pictures of them. I’d been watching them for minutes before I realized I recognized those kids.

I nudged David in the side with my elbow. “Those are the kids from Modern Family,” I said, naming one of the two sitcoms we watch (the other is 30 Rock). David’s eyes scrunched up and then widened with recognition, as if he’d been hunting for and finally found the image of a sailboat in a Magic Eye poster. My fellow zoogoers and I gave them a wide berth, allowing them space to play and pose. Once the beeps and clicks of the camera shutters died down, a woman emerged from the crowd and herded the child actors away from the center of the play area.

The tour guide’s voice returned and invited us to follow its source up the hill and to one of the exhibit’s new features, “Measure Up,” where people can compare their height and weight to polar bears with life-sized statues of the beasts and a two-ton scale. Always eager to be at the front of the crowd, I scooted up the hill with David close behind. But the ranks did not follow, and when we reached the zoo-man’s side — whose face matched his handsome voice — he’d stopped speaking.

“What’s going on?” I asked a woman beside me.

“Tori Spelling just arrived, along with the whole Tori and Dean crew,” she said. In response to my puzzled expression, she elaborated for me. “Tori and Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood? It’s a reality show on Oxygen.”

“Oh.” I was tempted to play hipster and feign knowledge of all things Tori, but though I honestly hadn’t heard of her recent escapades, I admitted, “I loved 90210.”

The rich and famous family had paused on the green carpet. Our guide had suspended his tour to give the mass of people time to take in the rare sight. It wasn’t until the family — Tori, Dean, and their two Hollywoodlings — hoofed it around the corner that the multitude followed, and the guide resumed his talking points.

After gauging how small I seemed in comparison to the ten-foot-tall statue of the bipedal bear, I followed David to the glass-enclosed exhibit opposite the “Polar Bear Den” where kids could crawl through snowy white caves and play with plastic seals. Vito, a zoo photographer, tipped me off that the best place to position myself would be by the new “Experience Wall,” a mesh gate on which a keeper would entice a bear to stand and lean forward for a tasty reward.

The bears weren’t out yet, but zoogoers didn’t seem to mind — they had their eyes full watching one of the celebrikids climb into and around a real helicopter, situated just beyond the enclosure. I parked myself in front of the gate and watched the people watch the celebrities, every so often stealing glances myself of Tori’s shiny hair, of Denise’s translucent skin. After all, we’d gone to the zoo to see something exotic, and the bears had yet to be revealed.

I remembered a study I’d read in which a scientist demonstrated that when given the option between food and gazing at an image of a dominant chimp (chimps who might have something they want), many chimps chose the latter. Jake Halpern (author of Fame Junkies) spent some time with that scientist. In an interview about his book, Halpern elaborated on the phenomenon: “It is quite possible that our modern-day desire to keep tabs on the powerful and the sexy, à la US Weekly, stems from our ancient past. In prehistoric times, the average male gathered as much data as he could about the group’s strongman or leader…. A socially astute prehistoric male with a keen eye for sizing up the powerful was probably far more likely to survive and reproduce. Over time, this sort of natural selection may have favored a behavior that resembles celebrity-watching.”

Moments before the bears were released from their private quarters, a celebrity handler asked me to take one step back as she lured Tori, Dean, and Denise to the spot in which I had been standing. I stared at the back of their heads while the keeper coaxed a female bear, Chinook, over to the wall. The majestic creature rose to a towering upright position; she planted her huge paws against the mesh wall to brace herself while she licked peanut butter from a plastic lollypop. She was putting on an impressive show for the audience. I wondered if the bear realized that, despite her commanding performance, she was not the center of attention.

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