Wondering Where the Lions Are

As you might possibly have noticed, animals fascinate me. Ever since I was a kid, I liked to read natural history books, watch nature programs on television, got to zoos.

Real zoos. Marshfield doesn't count.

Every year, our parish took the altar boys and choirgirls on an outing to Marshfield, an appreciation for our involvement in church. We'd go roller-skating--I'd fall down--have a picnic lunch, visit the Wildwood Park Zoo. It wasn't much of a zoo, small animals mostly: raccoons, a fox, a badger that never came out of his den. Buffalo and elk and wild sheep were in a field, a long way off and hard to see. They had some very nice exotic pheasants, but heck, so did my uncle John, who had a game farm license and raised Ringneck, Lady Amherst and Silver pheasants as well as Hungarian chukar partridge.

My senior year in high school, I went to the state forensics competition in Madison, got a first place in extemporaneous speaking. While we were there, we took some time to visit the Eastgate Mall (Bookstores! Bookstores!) and go to the Vilas Park Zoo.

I was in heaven. I'd only ever seen camels in a Nativity set before. And watching an orangutan flow through space as it moved along the monkey-barred ceiling of its enclosure was an incredible study of power and grace. I also got to see lions, face to face, for the first time.

Can you say mesmerizing? A level, golden gaze that can swallow you up. That was where I first learned that big cats--lions, tigers, leopards--don't have "cat's-eyes." Their pupils are round, like yours and mine.

I keep returning to that amazing leonine gaze. Currently, I'm painting lions on pie dishes and pasta bowls and the occasional dessert plate or tall mug.

And showing them with pride.