Strangely, our class visit to the zoo ended up being spiritual. There we were, in front of the gorilla exhibit, staring straight into the sorrowful face of the head honcho of the fam with me thinking the same thing I’ve thought every year that I’ve taken a grade 2 class to the zoo (4 years) – I don’t think I want to come again next year and marvel at these poor creatures staring blankly back at me – when a small voice piped up from beside me and invaded my private thoughts: “I think…I think it’s better if we went to the jungle and saw these animals there…then they would be happy and we would be happy. I’m not happy seeing them not-happy.”

It was one of my students, one of the lively, rambunctious ones that I’d especially selected to tour the zoo in my group (with the parent volunteers splitting up the less “explorative” rest of the class).

The other students heard this girl’s opinion and a strange silence fell on us. It seemed to be just us 7 and the old male gorilla with his sonorous face and slow-blinking eyes. Why do primates staring full into your face compel such bouts of conscience in us humans?

After that, the students couldn’t stop talking about the feelings of the animals. I was toting around not only gorilla-whisperers, but also elephant-whisperers, camel-whisperers, polar bear-whisperers and even red-tailed green rat snake-whisperers. At one point we went into a mock ranger cabin on the “African Savannah” and those students who were Buddhist and Hindu felt compelled to tell the presenter about some of their views on the sacred treatment of animals. One student gently touched a piece of zebra skin and asked how it had died. I could tell the presenter was a bit flustered. But then she came around and moved about the cabin gamely pointing out all the things that were fake (“See this lion skull? Guess what? It’s NOT real! We made it here at the zoo!” “Well, what about this tusk? Is that real?” “Well, er, yes but…we’re sure the elephant died of an illness…We’re the Zoo, we LOVE animals.”) I’m sure she was relieved when we moved on and the next group of bouncy, less-whispery kids bounded in.

The whole trip was obviously not like that – and as usual, the very same things that happen every year inevitably happened. In front of the spectacular view of the giraffes languidly moving across the field or the lion yawning majestically, the kids energetically pointed out “LOOK! An ant! An ANT!” or “Ms. K! IT’s A PIGEON! A PIGEON EVERYONE!” Every year without fail this happens in front of the most exotic animal exhibits.

But then…as we sat down in a quiet spot under a tree to eat our lunches, I pulled out my translation of Shaykh Al-Amin Ali Mazrui’s collection of hadith The Content of Character. I thought all the kids were involved in chatting with each other but a few of them drew near to me to ask what I was reading. I explained that it was something from my religion. What? they asked. It was about goodness, I explained. The gorilla-whisperer noticed the Arabic on the pages and wanted to hear me read it. So under the tree, amidst all the animal whisperers, I read in a lulling language which they did not understand but seemed content to just listen to without explanation. I read the meaning in my head: Those who show mercy have God’s mercy shown to them. Have mercy to those here on earth, and the One there in Heaven will have mercy on you.