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DVORAK: Don't look at zoos or humans for perfection

Petula Dvorak

Let's just put aside the cute little bloody-eyed wallaby for a second.

I know. You can't, right?

You keep imagining its little paws fighting for survival, flailing about as the pretty blonde who was supposed to take care of it at the Reston (Va.) Zoo, shoved it underwater in a plastic bucket, holding the furry body beneath the water's surface until the creature was dead.

Let's rewind the scene, put a chicken in the bucket instead of the cuddly wallaby and make Zookeeper Barbie a portly brunette. Would anyone care?

Our outrage is selective. It's all in the details, isn't it?

The director of the Reston Zoo, the aforementioned Ashley Tisdale-looking Meghan Mogensen, 26, was found guilty of animal cruelty last week and was sentenced to 30 days in jail.

She said she euthanized the wallaby, named Parmesan, because it had severely injured its eye, and the eye was bloody and popping out of its socket. She lied to investigators, telling them that she put the marsupial to sleep with a euthanasia drug.

Animal control officers found the euthanasia drug all right, one that she had at the zoo illegally. But they didn't find any needle sticks in the sopping wet body of poor little Parmesan, who'd been tossed into the garbage.

All of this was revealed by a whistleblower who worked at the for-profit petting zoo and was horrified by what she had seen. The story went viral, and militant animal lovers and righteous vegans are using it as their platform to decry zoos, carnivores, leather shoes and pretty much all of mankind.

How can anyone feel bad about drowning a wallaby, then go eat a burger, they demanded. People can kill millions of cows, but whoa, a wallaby is taking it just too far?

Can you support any zoo and call yourself a vegan, others huffed.

It reminds us of all the hypocrisy that comes with a seat at the top of the food chain. And all of it has parents in knots.

Going to the Reston Zoo, an overpriced, kinda sad little place in northern Virginia, where ostriches and camels roam behind a subdivision's swing sets, is a rite of passage for many local families.

I've brought my kids here several times, and it's easy to see that this isn't animal Valhalla. But it's totally kid paradise.

These private zoos are almost always a little sad, a little dingy. Even the National Zoo (which my husband calls the No-Animal Zoo because he never ever can spot an animal in its sprawling enclosures) is some version of cruel. And the circus is equally fraught, with all the tales of elephant cruelty making their way through courts. We wrestle with it, weighing the moral stand against cages versus the utter coolness of seeing real live animals up close. And we go.

"The kids get to really see animals here," said a Reston mother of two who has a season pass to the Reston Zoo and is also a member of the National Zoo, where she volunteered for years. Despite the court case and the wallaby's death, she won't shun the Reston menagerie.

"You know, I heard about it. I'm sorry for what happened, but we're really big zoo supporters," she said. Her 3-year-old daughter immediately began telling me about her favorite animal, a one-horned eland antelope she calls a "unicorn."

"I figured everyone makes mistakes and I'll give them one chance," said Virginia Fredricks, a mother of two who is also a season pass holder at the Reston Zoo and was among about a dozen families who came Monday morning, despite hearing about the wallaby incident.

"It was posted on our Listserv, and everyone just went crazy. All about how horrible the place is and don't go and how it should be shut down," said Fredricks, who shrugged. "I don't know. I'll keep coming and give them one more chance. If I hear about anything else like this, we'll stop coming. But the kids love it so much."

And with that, her 4-year-old son started telling me about the alligators.

See, that's the magic. There is nothing like seeing animals face to face. It's no wonder that despite the amazing and exotic residents at the National Zoo, most kids love Tulip the cow most, because she's always there and they can get close to her.

At the Reston Zoo, my kids had their overalls nibbled by baby goats and they touched the hard shell of a tortoise. Where I saw peeling blue paint and a depressing monkey habitat, my son determined there was a family, and the baby was following his mommy and the bad one swinging over there was the little brother. He saw their humanity, even if the zoo's own was lacking.

And it was on the zoo's bumpy tractor ride that my children marveled at the huge, beautiful golf-ball-sized eyeballs of the ostrich, who pecked at their cups for treats. You never get a sense of that until you've seen it up close.

These zoos are far from perfect.

And as we pick and choose our outrage -- horrified by the death of a cute wallaby, blase about the way pigs live and die to feed our bacon obsession -- we show that we aren't perfect, either.