Humidity hung heavily amongst the summer heat while we, uncomfortably dripping with sweat, escaped the sun beneath a forest of palm trees and lush, green plants. Bright, exotic-looking flowers along the path we followed may have fooled one into thinking we were on a trek through the Amazon. We were not.
Summertime in Orlando, Florida — “ intense, yet bearable — “ the perfect environment for Disney’s Africa-themed section of Animal Kingdom. Having just raced from Africa to Asia, in pursuit of tickets to ride the roller coaster cascading down Mount Everest, and back, my family and I were understandably seeking any refuge available from the sun’s scorching touch.The shaded path we were now following led us to the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, a walking tour exhibiting African animals in habitats as natural as one could build behind glass and bars thousands of miles from the Serengeti. We passed gazelles grazing among tall grasses, tigers stretched lazily in any shade they could find taking afternoon naps, and meerkats standing proud and alert upon their mounded homes, keeping watch for predators.
While observing these animals in such an environment was intriguing, it was not until I reached a further exhibit that this trip, this insignificant walk down a shaded path in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, came to leave a lasting impression upon me. The exhibit we now approached housed the gorillas. With glass windows at least twenty feet long, and interesting facts and information decoratively posted on the walls to the side, there were other visitors before me so that my view was blocked.
I was not overly excited to see gorillas, as I have never taken a particular interest to them, being neither cute nor cuddly; they had always seemed to me clumsy and aggressive. That is ignorance for you, I suppose, because as I approached the window through the crowd of onlookers, I found three gorillas near the window, lounging in the shade of a nearby rock wall in the afternoon heat. There was nothing aggressive about these gentle-looking animals peacefully asleep.
If anything, there was a genuinely human characteristic to them. The one nearest me was sleeping with his, or her, for I do not know the gender, feet rested up against the window, belly up toward the sky, with one arms over his eyes and the other lying listlessly as his side. I had never seen a gorilla this close before, and expect I never shall again.
Gorilla soles pressed against the glass from which I stood only inches revealed to me how alike humans these beings actually are. The structure of the gorilla’s feet were uncannily similar to the ones I saw when I looked down at my own. Toenails grew on each of the ten toes, bigger and thicker than human toenails, but shaped, nonetheless, the same.
The hand lying at the gorilla’s side was larger than mine by far, but had fingernails, thumbs, and lines creasing the palms and fingers reminiscent of a large man’s hand in a tight, leather glove. As if these features were not enough for me to analyze on this creature I knew nothing about, the position the gorilla lay in looked altogether too familiar, like a friend who, exhausted, flopped onto a bed for a nap. As I gazed at this sleeping animal, I became aware of the people around me.
To my left there was an Asian family speaking in a language I could not recognize – to my right, a French family who seemed to speak little English. All around I heard snippets of foreign languages, voices filled with the same delight, and I realized that it did not matter what country one came from, or what language one knew. I realized that the awe and wonder inspired by this magnificent creature, by nature in general, is a human experience, reaching across every ethnicity and race.
So among my fellow humans I stood, transfixed on the gorilla who was blissfully unaware of the audience watching him slumber. With a start, I realized my family was no longer behind me, but had already moved on to the next exhibit. With one more backwards glance at the creature I felt I had come to understand in the minutes I stood before it, I regrettably turned and continued along the shaded path to catch up with my family. But not before I snapped a photograph of my newfound inspiration.
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