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Nature: Truth versus fake truth in the zoo

Roswell Daily Record Archive Photo The "Ring of Fire" eclipse in 2012.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Ray Pawley

Special to the Daily Record

On Saturday, July 20, 1963, a few months into my new job as zoologist at one of the nation’s premier zoos in Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois, it was my turn to take on the weekend responsibility for the entire zoo. That means I was the “go to” staff person to answer questions by the public and respond to animal emergencies.

Immediately after lunch, I began patrolling the busy sidewalks, which were crowded with hundreds of families enjoying the fresh, warm air. About two hours into my stroll, and on schedule, the afternoon light under the broad elm tree canopy began to fade slightly, although the sky was cloudless. In a half hour, cardinals and robins began their chorusing as they usually would during twilight. The receding light took on a slightly greenish tinge.

Chicago, a city of 3,500,000, was in for a treat: A nearly full eclipse of the sun, the first in almost a decade and I intended to enjoy every second of it. Then, I noticed that the sidewalks — which had been teeming with hundreds of visitors — were being deserted until they were almost empty. Adding to the eerie mood was the gradual fading of traffic sounds on busy Clark Street and Lake Shore Drive.

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Within 20 minutes, there was almost complete silence and no one was in sight, not only in the zoo but in the surrounding neighborhood, as well. I asked myself, where had all the visitors gone? A quick check revealed that the animal buildings, now overcrowded with an apprehensive public, were becoming hot and stifling.

Many of the outdoor animals had become restless as the public unexpectedly disappeared. Big cats, normally asleep at this time, were now alert, glancing uneasily at the empty walkways. Hoofed stock in their yards began to quietly herd together while Siamang Gibbons would utter an occasional nervous bark.

It was a strange feeling to be walking in that early afternoon twilight, alone on deserted sidewalks that held hundreds of visitors an hour before. Were we on the brink of an extra-terrestrial event? Yes. Was Chicago, a City of 3.5 million in a crisis? Obviously. Was this straight out of a science-fiction novel? No. There was an explanation to this citywide behavior, which was as sobering as it was absurd.

The fact that Chicago was experiencing its first near-total solar eclipse in almost a decade should have been cause for excited anticipation by zoo-goers and their families. In fact, the occasion of this eclipse had been publicized for weeks in advance.

The first museum in the “New World“ devoted to the topic of outer space, Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, wanted to elevate public awareness of the wonders to be found beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. The pending eclipse was their opportunity. In fact, thoughtful instructions were provided by the Adler on how the public could — with a simple cardboard box and a pinhole in one side — create their own personal, low-tech mini-planetarium.

People could watch the entire eclipse process in real time on their cardboard “TV screen,” facing away from the sun, as the shadow of the moon passed between the sun and the Earth. Expectations were that the sidewalks throughout the city would be crowded with families eager to watch the event. However, as the planetarium cautioned, no one should stare at the sun, even during the eclipse — dark glasses or not — due to the risks of serious, even permanent eye injury.

The Chicago area media, including print, radio and TV, did an excellent job of publicizing the eclipse. The topic was the talk of the town. Many enthusiasts had prepared their cardboard boxes, complete with pinholes, weeks in advance and were eager for the chance to use them.

However, a glitch had taken place. Apparently, a reporter misunderstood the planetarium message and began circulating an absurd rumor that no one, not even pets, should be outside during the eclipse because they will go blind. This unbelievable story should have collapsed immediately under the sheer weight of its absurdity.

Realizing that some people were believing this senseless rumor, the media, particularly radio and TV began reassuring the public that going outside during an eclipse is no riskier to eyesight than on any other day. Just don’t stare at the sun.

I was certain that people would simply laugh about this new-found myth once they heard the facts. In fact, several announcements from the Hayden Planetarium were published in the news media in the days leading up to the event.

I was eagerly looking forward to witnessing the eclipse with my cardboard box when the telephone rang. It was the zoo’s assistant director frantically calling me, telling me in rather shrill terms that I needed to get all of the outdoor animals — antelopes, eagles, big cats, primates and others — into their inside quarters before the eclipse would take place.

I was stunned. I asked him “Why?” He shouted, “So the animals won’t go blind!” The assistant director, a very bright man with advanced degrees, had not listened to science, data and reason, but had succumbed to the myth and was now creating an exercise in absurdity. I tried to reason with him on the basis that eclipses have been taking place for millions of years and never have any creatures, humans included, gone blind because of it. He hung up.

In desperation, I called the Hayden Planetarium, eager to speak with a voice of reason, only to learn that their switchboard was going crazy and the harried voice that I eventually heard was expressing the utter helplessness he felt at the complete folly of what was going on.

Wearily, he agreed to call the assistant director and let him know that there were absolutely no risks of blindness to animals and people outdoors, as long as they didn’t stare at the sun. While the zoo’s assistant director never called me back, the Adler Planetarium official did let me know that, after repeating himself several times, rationality seemed to be restored.

On the following day, Sunday, the zoo was again crowded with visitors. The eclipse had come and gone, but this time a different sense of weirdness was felt. At no time did anyone ever mention the myth of people outdoors going blind during an eclipse. On a personal level and during the height of the eclipse the day before, I had the singular privilege of enjoying the entire outdoor animal collection knowing that none of us would go blind.

My take-home message? Do not underestimate the gullibility of not only the masses, but also people in positions of authority. In fact, in spite of a grounding in science, an entire city fell victim to baseless myths. Decisions based on myths is akin to throwing darts, and darts can yield needlessly painful consequences.

Even now, during every eclipse, I like to walk around outside in the eerily dim light with my pin-holed cardboard box in hand to observe my little solar-based documentary in real time, don’t you?

Following a decade of employment and consulting in the private sector — including owning a zoo — Ray Pawley managed animal collections (particularly reptiles) at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo and Brookfield Zoo for more than 30 years. Pawley continues to be actively involved with zoos as a wildlife behavior researcher and as a consultant writer/producer for the media, including being a periodic wildlife mini-series producer for KENW-TV, Eastern New Mexico University, Portales.

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