I originally published this article on Medium on April 10, 2020, but it was written in October of 2019.
The Bactrian camel does not care about the throngs of onlookers concerned about its eating habits. Drawing what appears to be a six foot long piece of cardboard into its mouth, the camel chews in slow, considered bites. Its jaw carefully mulls the fibrous pulp, flexing its muscles from side to side with a conveyer belt consistency, chewing ceaselessly as zoo-goers observe. Their pointed fingers, laughter and mouths ajar suggest a cocktail of horror and fascination in equal measure. One man talks to the infant he is strolling in a baby carriage, and murmurs cheerfully to the baby something akin to “Look, it’s just like you!”
On this sunny Sunday in Chicago, several families are perched by the high wall that separates the people and the hungry camel. Cyclists and pedestrians zip by on the bike path just a few feet outside. Amongst all of this, the camel keeps consuming cardboard. Its focus is singular, fixed: not unlike the way a snake engulfs its prey in one fell swoop. Towards the end of the cardboard, the camel takes just one pause — a brief one, for about 30 seconds — before the cardboard finally disappears for good. Apparently its eating habits are not as unusual as they may look.
Today, the Lincoln Park Zoo, located on 2001 North Clark Street, is a hub for families enjoying the crisp autumnal weather. People walk among paths lined with red and orange leaves. They are buying tickets for carnival rides and face painting, corn mazes and pumpkin patches. This day at the zoo is a part of Fall Fest, described on the website as a “free, family-friendly celebration [that] injects the heart of Chicago with a little harvest fun each year from September–October.”
Despite the flurry of activity, many zoo-goers are captivated by the camels — this one, and others still. Walk around the corner and observe yet another camel chomping on cardboard. Some visitors passing by the camels question why animals are eating cardboard in the first place, joking that the food indicates that Chicago’s free admission, non-profit zoo could be in dire financial straits. According to their website, however, camels are not the only animals that enjoy consuming the recycled good. On the FAQ page, a poster asks “why is that ape eating cardboard?” Zoo educators wrote that “cardboard offers extra enrichment for the zoo’s chimpanzees and gorillas…and a bit of harmless roughage.”
The zoo acknowledges that while some might find the animals’ behavior odd, the website cautions visitor attempts at anthropomorphization, saying that “snapshot impressions of how an animal appears to be faring don’t provide the entire picture.” For some animals, cardboard is perhaps commonplace.