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Zoos are for Children

23 Feb

We were recently introduced to Five Sisters Zoo by Lisa and Andrea, an animal-loving couple we’re very good friends with. The zoo is significant for its focus on animal rescue. Its latest rescues are two bears who had been saved from a life of circus performance, and a lynx who had been living in a small enclosure at a rescue centre that could no longer provide for him. The zoo had gone to enormous trouble to build spacious naturalistic habitats for these animals. I approved of its sense of priority: it provides proper hiding places for every creature, and visitor visibility be damned.

Thus the bears were out of sight, hibernating in underground hollows among the trees. Buster the lynx was wide awake, though. Here he is, looking a bit unsure of himself in his new surroundings. He had climbed to the top of one of his climbing frames in his woodland enclosure. The zoo owner told us he likes to watch the comings and goings in the car park from this vantage point. I blinked at him in the slow way that cats do to smile at each other, and he blinked slowly back.


The more long-term zoo inhabitants were busy, happy and curious. They enjoyed looking at the visitors and trying to poke us through the bars. Various species of lemur tried to lick my camera lens, and this one succeeded.

Lens snogger

Some of the birds spoke to us with such charm, it was difficult to walk away from them.


I loved the scents of the different animals: the foxy meerkats, the goaty-horsey reindeer, the lemony raven. The skunk was, sadly, snoozing in a hole, so I didn’t get to satisfy my curiosity on that score.

Andrea adored the monkey house, particularly the tamarins who all crowded up to her, some of them hanging upside down, to scrutinize her closely. Lisa was immensely popular with all the animals, because she happened to be carrying a crackly bag. Animals have a special affinity for crackly bags. One otter went berzerk, rushed around squeaking, then climbed to the top of a tree and loudly berated her for not sharing her tuna sandwiches. Until then, I hadn’t realised that otters could climb trees.

Tree otter

Major renovations were being carried out at the zoo during our visit. New and better enclosures were going up, but in the interim some animals were unavailable to view, and a lot of  the housing had incongruous signage.


We had each paid a little extra for a “handling session”, because who would pass up an opportunity like that? At the appointed time we made our way to the reptile house, and presently the head keeper appeared and began setting out chairs. The chairs were very, very small. As more visitors entered the building, we realised that everyone else waiting to handle the animals was half our height and a tenth of our age. A cluster of parents looked on proudly from behind a barrier as the four of us squatted on the tiny chairs among their infants.

Head Keeper Lynn introduced us all to a python, a tortoise, and a giant hissing cockroach. She gave a talk about each one – where it came from, its habitat and body structure, and how to hold it safely. We listened meekly and did as we were told.

Head Keeper Lynn

The looks of wonder on the children’s faces was a joy to behold. We loved that they had been given this experience, but we couldn’t imagine why their parents had chosen not to take part too. Nor could we understand why the zoo (with its tiny chairs) expected this. We thought about other people we knew, and realised that, for most people, animals are a form of children’s entertainment. If an adult buys a pet, then it’s a dog or a cat or a fish. All other pets are bought for children. Even when adults go to feed ducks, it’s generally because they have kids with them. This delight in animals displayed by Lisa and Andrea somehow gets lost  when people reach adulthood:

Animal people

Happily for the future of conservation and this blog, there are still many people who don’t grow out of it. For Bunty and me, the best part of visiting the zoo was that it didn’t have to end. We arrived home to our own zoo, which welcomed us back with a crescendo of squeaks and meows and grunts and binkies, the moment Bunty crackled a bag.


He Was Feeling Blissful

18 Mar

Last month, my uncle discovered that he had cancer, and he went in for an operation which he was told had a 20% survival rate. Being very fit and healthy, he was confident about the outcome. He woke from the operation and told the nurses he felt “blissful”. But by the time the family and I arrived at his hospital in Leeds, he was in a coma.

He was allowed two visitors at a time, so I mostly accompanied my grandmother, his mother, to sit at his bedside. It seemed to us that, though he was lying still with his eyes closed, there was a difference in his face between one time and another; as though sometimes he was asleep and dreaming, and sometimes he was listening and aware.

I therefore made a point of speaking to him. I greeted him when we arrived, told him who we were and who was waiting for him in the waiting room. I told him what tests the doctors were doing on him and why, and when we left him I said goodbye and told him when we would be back. His other visitors spoke to him too. His mother held his hand and stroked it gently, telling him she loved him and would visit him every day.

I brought in my book to read to him during these daily visits. It was the biography of the naturalist Gerald Durrell, my childhood hero and role model. I have no idea what my uncle thought of him, but I hoped that the colourful images of Gerald’s childhood in India, and of his experiences with exotic animals, might be pleasant for someone stuck in a hospital bed. I felt it must be dull to be lying there hour after hour, day after day.

The doctors and nurses working in the ward began to find reasons to carry out tasks near my uncle’s bed when I visited. After a while, they began asking me when the next chapter would be read out. I liked this: having so many specialists close by meant they would immediately notice changes in my uncle’s health. Reading to him made him safe.

But in the end, safety was not enough to see him through. My uncle was not one of the 20% who survive the Whipple operation. He died with a head full of happy plans, blissful emotions, and perhaps some images of a small boy in India who had pet bears.

Gerald and me