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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.

Buster

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.

Birdbrains

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.

Chipmunk

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.

Duck Love

18 Apr

Yesterday when he was in the garden, Bunty saw a pair of mallards waddling down the road. Cars shot by heedless of them, as they began to cross.  Bunty contemplated vaulting over the fence to usher them back to the verge, but feared he would panic them and drive them in front of a car instead. Then, a car hit the female duck. The driver had slowed down, but not enough. The bumper clipped her head, knocking her unconscious.

Bunty collected her from the tarmac before another car ran her over, and carried her carefully into the house. She came round as they reached the kitchen, and struggled to get out of his hands. Her wings and legs seemed strong and healthy, so Bunty took her to a corner of the field beside our cottage and placed her on the grass. She waggled her tail, found a place to settle down, and remained there for the next few hours, her head tucked under her wing.

Bunty told me all about her when he picked me up from college. We gazed at her over the garden wall, and she lifted her head briefly to look back at us. In the late afternoon, she perked up and began pottering about in the floody puddle nearby. She showed no interest in flying away, or in walking far, and we felt she was probably still concussed.

Things were looking positive until dusk fell, and torrents of rain came  battering the stone walls of the cottage. I messaged our local bird nerd Gillian to get advice. Gillian suggested keeping her indoors for the night, in a warm dark box, with the addendum that if she was difficult to catch, she would likely be fine outside. We made a box cosy with hay and climbed over the garden wall. The duck was gone.

We got a torch and searched the field, the lane, the hedge and the main road. There was no sign of her. The fact that there were no feathers left in the field suggested she had not been attacked, and had probably flown away. I was pleased, and so was Gillian, but Bunty fretted about his duck. He wanted to know for sure what had happened to her.

The next morning, on his way to the car to drive me to college, he paused to scan the field for her.

“Hey!” he said.

She was waddling toward us, with a drake in tow – perhaps the one who had been crossing the road with her. Upon sight of us, they both took to the air. There was clearly nothing wrong with the duck’s wings.

They returned to the corner where Bunty had first placed his duck. While she settled down to rest, the drake stood on the alert nearby, eyeing me with suspicion.

It is afternoon now, and they are still there. It appears that Bunty has two new best friends. He has thrown them some bread in case they get hungry. It’s important to feed one’s guests.

The Bird Nerd

2 Apr

One of my university friends, Gillian, is a bird nerd. Every moment of her spare time is dedicated to wild birds. She gets up at strange hours to carry out arcane activities in the dusk, such as “mist netting”; in this way, she gets to hold all kinds of different birds in her hands – some of which the rest of us have never seen in our lives. She weighs them and checks their vital statistics, and puts little colour-coded rings on their legs so that they can be tracked. She puts updates on Facebook about how far certain swans she has met have travelled from their birthplace. She learns the personalities and tendencies of individual birds whom she has ringed. She is not paid to do any of this – it’s her hobby.

Thanks to her, I saw my first coot’s nest. I wouldn’t have known this was a nest had she not pointed it out to me. I’d had no idea that coots were builders of islands. How do they manage it without all the reeds floating away?

Nest recording has been Gillian’s latest endeavour. As soon as the birds on campus started taking advantage of our lovely spring weather and flirting with each other (or piling into a scrum, in the case of ducks), she began doing tours of the campus, finding their nests, recording their statuses, and photographing their eggs. I don’t know how she spots them all, as most of them are extremely well-hidden. I can only assume she uses some kind of Nest Radar.

One day recently, she posted this photograph on Facebook:

She explained that a pair of coots had used an old swan’s nest as the base for their own nest, until this swan had come along, chased them away, and appropriated the nest for itself. The coots were now frantically building a nest of their own, which can be seen taking shape in the background.

The following day, I was studying in the university Chaplaincy, which has a nice atmosphere and comfortable seats. I stood and stretched, and looked out of the window at the loch. Near the shore was a swan on a nest, and I immediately recognised it as the one Gillian had photographed. I popped down to the shore for a closer look.

The coots had finished building their nest, and one coot was sitting as patiently on top of it as the swan was on his. As I watched, a second coot came swimming across the loch and greeted the one on the nest. The one on the nest stepped out into the water and floated away, leaving the second coot to gently probe its beak at something inside the nest before settling down on top of it.

Changing places

When I later told Gillian about this, she said that their behaviour signifies that there are at least two eggs in that nest. She was pleased they had managed to lay again.

Gillian’s bird blog can be found here: http://www.gilliandinsmore.blogspot.co.uk/