Ollie the Bobcat, Trapped Again in Washington's Bubble
As daily events in Washington grow ever stranger, we can still take comfort in good, old-fashioned stories about cute animals. On Wednesday, the female bobcat Ollie -- who had escaped from her enclosure two days earlier -- was discovered at Washington’s National Zoo. This may seem like a trivial event, but it does reflect some major themes of our time. I’ll start with the pessimistic lessons, but close with some reasons for hope.
First, we Americans play it far too safe, most of all when it comes to our children. After Ollie’s escape was reported, 13 nearby schools canceled their outdoor recesses, even though bobcats are not a threat to human beings (they prefer very small prey). Better safe than sorry seems to be the national childrearing philosophy, but the phony threats are causing us to overlook real dangers to our children, such as the national debt and mediocre political institutions. At least the kids won’t be done in by a 25-pound feline.
Dare I suggest that Ollie has shown us that walls do not work? The National Zoo supposedly has foolproof enclosures for its animals, but Ollie made a 5-by-5-inch hole in her cage and simply climbed out. A nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico won’t be easier to police.
Ollie’s walkabout also illustrates a problem in gender relations. She shared her cage with two male bobcats, and perhaps they were part of the reason she left. Furthermore, the public descriptions of Ollie show a kind of gender bias: Her keepers called her as “standoffish,” whereas a male escapee might have been called “independent,” “adventurous” or “entrepreneurial.”
Upon capture, the treatment of Ollie shows why health-care costs are escalating so rapidly. Today she will be given a full medical examination, even though it seems she did little more than walk around some fairly posh parts of town. The rule seems to be that if we can give someone or something a full checkup, we will. Ollie did have one small scratch on her paw.
As you might expect these days, Ollie’s escape was put to partisan use. Wonkish-sounding policy messages are not always heeded, so House Speaker Paul Ryan titled his recent mass e-mail “bobcat found.” The substance concerned not Ollie but rather Ryan’s views on tax policy and the U.S. Supreme Court. Ryan reported: “Just as you can continue to visit Ollie the bobcat at her home at the National Zoo, you can also visit speaker.gov for more information on the Republican plan to get the country back on track.”
The saddest part of the Ollie saga is that, believe it or not, not everyone cares so much about freedom. Zoo officials had suggested that Ollie could live comfortably in Rock Creek Park and feed off a diet of mice, rats, chipmunks and squirrels. Our nation’s capital had a chance for its own D.B. Cooper, Butch Cassidy, Bigfoot and Jersey Devil, all rolled into one lovable feline persona, standoffish or not.
It was not to be, but not because a team of Navy SEALs hauled her in. Ollie, after a few reported sightings about town, returned to the zoo and was caught in a trap baited with food. She was found by the bird cages, shortly after the zoo reported it was giving up the search. It seems she is more of a homebody, preferring federal rule, federal housing and a heavily regulated diet to a tax-free life on the lam.
So what’s the bright side of this whole story?
Well, from a human point of view we lost Ollie, a national treasure and according to some accounts, as a bobcat, a totemic symbol of patience. And for a while, we couldn’t find Ollie. Sadly, showing all-too-human impatience, we called off the search.
But it turned out our patience -- our bobcat -- never really went away. She was hanging around the whole time, right under our noses.
So just when things appear to be hopeless, just when our government appears to be ridiculously impatient, and the long perspective no longer seems worth the struggle and search, perhaps our American rigor, determination, far-sightedness will appear once again, as if by magic. Right here in Washington.
Bobcat lore also holds that “bobcat people are typically already learned in the importance of keeping silent about sensitive affairs.”
If only a few food traps out by the bird cages would do the trick.
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