An Eclipse Among the Animals: The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s Solar-Bration

Travel Features Columbus
An Eclipse Among the Animals: The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s Solar-Bration

The sun disappeared above the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium for a little over two minutes, and the animals remained chill. Chiller than the humans, even: if the leopards, elephants and sloth bears assumed it was a sign of the apocalypse, as some people apparently did, they never showed it. They mostly just hung out, as animals tend to do—Nature’s Bros, but without all the bullshit.

The Columbus Zoo sat in the Path of Totality, so it was a no-brainer for me to ditch my eclipse-deficient home of Atlanta and head north to their Solar Eclipse Solar-Bration. The zoo, famous throughout America due in part to its former director Jack Hanna’s many TV appearances over the decades (if you’ve ever seen David Letterman hold a monkey, Hanna was almost definitely the guy who handed it to him), is home to thousands of animals from around the world, and you better believe I wanted to see how they’d react to a total solar eclipse. Again: they held it together better than us humans did.

An elephant was bathing her calf as the moon first started to block out the sun. The baby would disappear under the water and pop back up on the other side of her mother, occasionally rubbing up against her, as both splashed about in the water with their trunks. I put on the eclipse glasses provided by the Zoo and looked up at the sun; the moon had taken a small but growing bite out of it.

Columbus Zoo

The lions and giraffes had the day off, with their part of the zoo closed to guests. Elsewhere a plump gray langur sat undisturbed on a tree branch, seemingly possessed with all the wisdom of the universe; if it could speak its voice would almost definitely be Frank Oz’s. Above the sun was half gone, the bottom coin in a stack of two. I stared into the langur’s eyes; I wasn’t worthy of receiving whatever knowledge it had to share.

Len’s “Steal My Sunshine” played outside. 45 minutes later it played again. I would hear Len’s “Steal My Sunshine” more this afternoon than in the previous 20 years combined. Anybody who has ever written a hit song with the words “sun,” “moon” or (obviously) “eclipse” in the title had one hell of a streaming day on Monday, if the Columbus Zoo’s playlist was any indication. “Moondance,” “Blister in the Sun,” Al Jarreau—it was nothing but the celestial hits on a constant loop. If that langur held a soft spot for Van Morrison, it didn’t give it away.

The sun was half gone when I ate a burger. An eclipse doesn’t add anything to the experience of eating a burger, but it doesn’t detract from it, either. I was worried that eating an animal in a place dedicated to preserving and exhibiting animals might feel weird, but most of those animals would eat a burger if they could, so let’s call it a wash. Plus there aren’t any cows at the Columbus Zoo, from what I saw—at least not any that weren’t on a menu. 

Columbus Zoo

Sheryl Crow and guest vocalist Liz Phair were telling everyone to lighten up as I approached Kangaroo Station a few minutes before the time of totality. A wooden kangaroo boasted (or perhaps warned?) that it can jump up to 30 feet on a sign outside the enclosure. This was a popular spot to see the total eclipse, probably because it was about as close to actual animals as one could get at the zoo. When the sun was down to the last quarter of its life bar a few kangaroos warily hopped out of their little house and gazed up at the sky. Were they going to freak out? Would they hop 30 feet through the air and flex their muscles and punch out all these pale fleshy things in their cardboard glasses as darkness devoured the sky?

Nah. They were chill. They just stood there. Like all of us.

The afternoon briefly turned to dusk when the moon fully obscured the sun about 10 minutes after 3 p.m. The crowd whooped and clapped and took photos and videos, trying to capture this celestial marvel in a way that wasn’t really capable of doing so. My photos look like a cloudy day instead of an unnatural darkness. Some came prepared with actual cameras, and their pics no doubt came out far better than all of our smart phone snaps. The four or five kangaroos stood calm on their front lawn, acknowledging neither the sky nor the people staring up at it. One of them moseyed back into their house.

Columbus Zoo

After a couple of minutes the sky brightened up again. It was a bit deflating, to be honest. So many hours, days, weeks spent anticipating this moment, and it lasted about as long as a movie trailer. It was amazing to see, and if I’m around when the next one hits North America in 20 years I’m sure I’ll make an effort to see it, but it had the same sweet, sad hangover you feel after a birthday or a holiday. The sun had disappeared and returned again within an afternoon; what now?

On my way to the exit I passed what looked like an Eastern temple next to a grassy hill with a tree or two on top of it. An orangutan sat stoically on the hill, clutching a baby under one arm. A docent told me how the mother had initially grabbed her child and hurried inside when the eclipse had begun earlier; when totality arrived, though, she came back out, still holding her baby, and sat on the hill. She seemed to look up at the eclipse, the docent said; she still sat there, several minutes after totality had ended. The docent was surprised by this behavior, and other than several birds that chirped en masse during the peak of darkness, it was the only incident I heard of where an animal seemed to directly acknowledge the eclipse. And even then, if the orangutan was reacting to the eclipse, she did it the only way the zoo’s animals seemed to know how: totally chill. Just hanging out. One with nature, and all that.

As I left the Columbus Zoo to catch my ride back to the city, “Steal My Sunshine” played for the sixth and final time. Hear you again in 20 years, my friend.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

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