Cold Comfort

Early in COVID lockdown this spring, America’s viral diversion of aw was watching penguins subvert their societal role as aquarium attractions to temporarily become commanders of the gaze. First they waddled the halls of Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium to have a gander at their fellow marine life. Then another waddle from the Kansas City Zoo ventured to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art for a look-see.

Suddenly we thought a lot about animals captive in zoos because we had ourselves become captive. The parallels could not be starker: the primary complaint of zookeepers is the incessant drudgery of shoveling out feces; our own obsession at that time was hoarding toilet paper.

I occupy an apartment that I have been proud to think of as “small but not New York small”—high ceilings, big bedroom, lots of light, kitchen with actual threshold. But after a month or so of confinement, I kept channeling the words of the puma languidly draped on a nonliving tree branch in the short animated film that put Nick Park on the map: “We need the space to feel we are part of the world and not a kind of object in a box.”

Creature Comforts won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film 30 years ago. It is both fully in the letter and spirit of the immensely popular Wallace and Gromit films that followed but also distinctively different in one respect: the voices of the interviewed zoo animals belong to real people—residents of what in the UK is called “estate housing” and senior citizens confined to a home for the like.

The film is very funny, but I remember being more moved than amused when I saw it new—probably because, like many people, I am guilty of generating more pathos for animals deprived of their natural lives than for those of us who must live in cookie-cutter and likely cramped public housing. For some reason, we don’t fault animals for their cruel predicaments in the way we fault humans, even the “innocent children” we are fond of invoking when convenient.

Park’s seemingly lighthearted film forces us to apply our sense of moral violation at the indignity animals suffer as mere diversions to the way we box up and store our people of limited means. His Plasticine animals (with abundant teeth) successfully marshal our compassion for the human voices behind them—voices discussing feelings about living where they do and what they miss about freedom.

I rewatched Creature Comforts multiple times during lockdown and was amazed at its uncanny anticipation of the global crisis of 2020. In the absurdly hilarious opening sequence, a trio of polar bear kids stands before a zoo’s igloo prop. The youngest bear speaks into the dropped microphone about the superiority of zoos, explaining that animals in the wild “have to kill their own people to have something to eat.”

In 1989, polar bears hadn’t begun their march to becoming memes of environmental degradation. Gus from the Central Park Zoo was only five, not yet the influencer he would become in the 1990s by swimming obsessively in his pool for up to twelve hours a day. By the start of 2020, it wasn’t that we didn’t care about that castaway polar bear alone on a tiny melting iceberg. It was more that, however many twenty-five-dollar clicks we gave to this or that nonprofit, we were powerless within a broken system. But when COVID hit, emotionally, we all became that solitary polar bear.

The very voices the film spotlights—old people, residents of public housing, and children—have become the social stress points of this pandemic. Residents of nursing homes and those living in cramped dwellings, public or not, have been the primary victims of COVID-19. These are populations we normally choose not to see, rendered invisible to middle-class life because their lack of economic mobility terrifies us with the prospect of monotonous confinement. Same for the old people on public assistance, whose lack of capacity to consume makes them useless to Republicans like the Texas Lieutenant Governor.

Even the torpid puma on the fake branch (voiced by a Brazilian friend of Park’s) has an odd COVID resonance. “I miss the fresh meat,” he laments, “because in Brazil . . . we like fresh meat.” With its autocratic government, Brazil is not only right behind the United States in the highest COVID-19 counts worldwide; its ever increasing export of beef has been tied to deforestation in the Amazon and the acceleration of greenhouse gasses that are destroying many things, including the habitats of polar bears.

Globally, workers in meatpacking plants have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19—a situation made worse in the United States by Donald Trump’s demand that Americans not be deprived of a surfeit of meat, however many workers fall ill.

During this pandemic, middle- and upper-class consumers of digital media have found a saturation of “comfort.” While essential workers risked their lives intubating patients or stocking supermarket meat cases, remote workers with still disposable incomes were treated like Martha Stewarts under house arrest, like they needed to be talked down from the ledge with links to silk pajamas and culinary gadgets.

Before its television premiere in 1989, the director and animator Terry Gilliam said of Creature Comforts that “the man who made this should be made God tomorrow.” I agree. Thirty-one years on, it can still make us feel something more important than comfort. §