Monday, November 5, 2012

Homer's Feather

In the 2012 “House” exhibition in Ephemerata Gardens, the Santa mug, a Kinkaid nightlight, and other tchotchkes were props in our dwellings’ happy cocooning into private, cozy dreams. Others explored the pressing risk of collective vulnerability from elemental forces that could wipe our cities off the earth’s surface. I built a window display case from the neighbor’s remodeling debris and parts of an abandoned bed frame found down the road. Inside a white feather floated above a Hummel figurine modified by artist Michelle Foster with little bindles to look like depression-era hobo children. In 1988, activists with the Street People’s Advisory Council (SPAC) bought a goose from Callahan’s and threatened to kill and grill him unless Austin city officials would meet to address helping the homeless. Although it outraged animal rights activists, the publicity stunt resulted in some office space and funding for homeless advocacy groups. For several months Homer camped on a SPAC raft, the SS Homer, in Town Lake with two homeless men. After fainting at a summer political rally, Homer moved in with activist Lori Cervenak-Renteria where he lived for 18 years before retiring at Austin Zoo. His theme song goes:

Oh, give me a home
So I don't have to roam
Through the alleys and dumpsters today.
Where seldom is heard an encouraging word.
They just wish we'd all go away.
I can't pay the rent
So I live in a tent
Beneath the Montopolis Bridge.
I just need a home,
With a bed and a phone,
A stove and a toilet and fridge.*

The Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary got its start in 1990 as the Good Day Ranch, Cindy and Jim Carroccio’s private petting zoo of goats and other livestock. The local paper’s 2002 Day Trips column described “the zoo [as] a natural progression for Cindy's love of animals. When she lived in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Austin her back yard was full of strays and homeless critters.”** Good Day Ranch’s population grew by accepting rescue animals seized from abusive situations, like the crowd-drawing leopards in Reverend Lavender’s traveling revival tent that PETA helped save through the courts. In 2000 the business gained nonprofit status to protect its animals in the long term and have more access to grant money. By 2005 the Carroccios were getting divorced and the zoo’s financial situation was an unorganized mess. The nonprofit board discovered boxes of uncashed checks and $700 cash, bags stuffed with receipts and vet and bank records in the barn.*** By 2008 the nonprofit board had taken over, firing Jim as executive director and replacing him with Patti Clark. In 2009 the nonprofit bought the 54-acre tract of land from Cindy for about 400K. There is a mini-train you can take on a loop through the Hill Country past gazelles and llamas.

Lacking the slick Disneyland aesthetic of places like the San Diego Zoo—intense theming or “landscape immersion,” concrete rockscape waterfalls, and an exorbitant entry price—Austin Zoo strikes some visitors as a rinky-dink knock-off of the real thing. They ask just $8 to get in. It retains the feel of a DIY menagerie, partly improvised out of everyday objects donated by local businesses and families. You can sense the collective effort that composes the sanctuary. The zoo has a strong volunteer base, and you can help with daily chores around the facility, even work directly with some of the animals. They have a sponsor an animal program (“$150 feeds Austin Zoo’s monkeys for one week”) and accept meat to feed the large cats (no pork or horse), hay, fruit, veggies, nuts, and so on. Their gift register features an array of specialty products like a $400 lion bungee toy and chandeliers for parrot play, as well as commodities put to unintended uses: buck and raccoon urine to spray around for tigers to investigate, rattling baby balls for the coatis and kinkajoos. The new Primate Palace is a converted pony barn. The zoo’s homemade habitats include repurposed postconsumer products, like 55-gallon drums the tigers toss around, a castle of milk crates wired together for the goats.

Sometimes salvage animals arrive at the zoo needing intensive veterinary care and rehabilitation. Some of the large cats are retired circus performers or private pets that otherwise could have ended up at “canned hunting” ranches where people pay to kill. A lion from a junk man’s menagerie was so malnourished it had broken an ankle from its own weight. Former lab-testing primates are missing digits or tail tips crushed by cage doors. The Zoo gets 50 requests a month to take in new animals, but they generally accept a dozen a year to stick within their space and funding limits. They say it’s hard to turn animals down.

In 2010 Austin Zoo took in two lions from a private owner that were suspected to be Barbary lions. Their extinction in North Africa is knotted up in Roman, British, and French imperial cruelty. Moroccan royalty who saved captive lions in private menageries preserved a few dozen specimens. This led to Austin Zoo’s first involvement with a breeding program: the Barbary Lion Project, a collaboration between the Rabat Zoo in Morocco and a professor at the University of Oxford funded by the UK-based Wildlink International. The Project’s goal is to selectively breed lions with mitochondrial DNA from the Barbary sub-species gleaned from a museum specimen's bones. By salvaging and amplifying shreds of gene sequences in captive lions breeders hope to reconstruct purebred Barbary Lions to be released on a preserve in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains and reverse extinction. The species is doubly homeless, lacking bodies and a safe habitat. Austin Zoo provided DNA screening to assess if their lions were indeed Barbary lions (measured as a percent of the animal’s genome). They bred two baby lions that drew record crowds on Spring Break. The growing cubs found a new home at the Texas Zoo in Victoria. But Wildlink International mysteriously vanished as an institution, leaving the breeding project in unfunded limbo.*** (Did they ever find out about the DNA?)

What happens when we try to cheat extinction and reverse calousness by salvaging animal lives? In The Chances of the World Changing (2006), a moody documentary directed by Eric Daniel Metzger for PBS, we watch Richard Ogust’s life spin out of control as he encumbers himself with caring for his family of 1200 rare and endangered turtles in their improvised habitats of tanks and tubs. First they take over his loft, then rented warehouses. His “assurance colony” (to preserve species diversity) grows by accepting turtles seized by customs agents and by relieving other turtle conservationists of their burdens. The film meditatively lingers on the turtles’ expressive and colorful faces and shells, their slow floating and leisurely eating. For Ogust, the turtles become at once an ecstasy and a woeful impossibility, their very conditions for preservation leading to insurmountable technical and legal troubles as his collection becomes too big to handle. He hatches the plan to overcome these problems and limitations of the individual by founding an institute.
I in some way wanted to prove to people who were close to me that my having them had some value to it, and it wasn’t all based upon (sigh)…you know, emotional weakness and collection mania and stuff, but that it would somehow be… the whole project would be converted into something of real value.
Another turtle collector shares Ogust’s dream of a collective atmosphere for turtle conservation: “It would be nice to have one giant institute that could take care of everything. It’s called the world, and it’s not working. You can’t build a big enough greenhouse to house everything the way it should be, so maybe keeping fewer things in better condition, more space in smaller areas…” In this daydream the atmospheric institute of the world is broken, and atmospheres maintained by individuals and institutions alike are in constant danger of overburdening their carrying capacity. A third collector commiserates that to ensure the health and manageability of their turtle atmosphere, “we’d have to pass animals by, and that’s the hardest part, is learning to put your hands over your eyes and say, ‘I can’t take these animals even though they need me.’”

In Ogust's world, evolutionary fitness has been replaced by a measure of happiness. Since long-term species survival is out of any individual's hands, Ogust tinkers with making the turtles look "happy" in their homes, an end result determined by meeting their health, food, and social needs. He delivers some of his ward to another collector's outdoor turtle pond where he thinks they look really happy as they slip into the murky water. But his dream of founding an institution recedes as the Environmental Protection Agency seizes one of his turtle shipments. The film obscures exactly how Ogust was able to fund his turtle world, but in the end lack of money impedes his institution.

Institutions in the City of Living Garbage emerge through unplanned, slow aggregation by giving home to undervalued beings. Projects and missions are tacked onto old forms as they are given new capacities and become parts of new processes. Institutionalization of DIYsneylands involves a changing of the characters in the landscape and the professionalization of roles that regenerate landscape patches (as we see with Austin Zoo, as well as Magic Gardens, the Healing Machine, the Bottle Village, and many other landmarks in the City of Living Garbage), but also a constant making do with inherited forms that have taken on lives of their own. While institutions firm up to preserve and save idiosyncratic, vulnerable beings, they are themselves vulnerable. Hoping to save trashed things that have no clear value, they risk underfunding and not being able to pay the rent. They turn instead to an economy of happiness, building just the bare forms of home as refrains in this homeless ecology.


*Austin Avian Rescue and Rehabilitation, “The Story of Homer the Homeless Goose,”
** Chronicle Gerald E. McLeod, March 29, 2002, Day Trips,
***( Andrea Ball, “New day for the Austin Zoo: Animal sanctuary overcoming problems, board says” Jan 6, 2011)
****Being Lion, The author is “a Barbary lion that grew up human,” longing to have its body back. She is an animal-person, feeling transspecies as some people feel transgender. “Even though I take many shapes that seem solid, seem to be built of fur and muscle and bone and claw, when you zoom in to see the essence, it is always Water flowing” (

1 comment:

  1. Update on Homer by Andrea Ball