Tag Archives: birds

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.

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Wild Paddy

8 Aug

Paddy, the patriarch of our seven guinea pigs, once lived in the woods with a cockerel. Their many wives roamed around the cottage garden in the Highlands where Bunty’s mother lives. Paddy and the cockerel spent part of the day with their wives, and then the two would cross the burn, climb the hill, pass under the fence or fly over it (depending), and return to their batchelor pad among the Scots pines.

The cockerel

Three pregnant wives

Paddy’s wives would nurture and wean Paddy’s pups in special enclosures where they would be safe from cats and owls. When they were old enough, Bunty’s mother would take them to Pets at Home and sell them. One summer, when Paddy’s wives had eleven pups on the go, Bunty’s mother decided to retire him from stud duties. Eleven was quite enough to be getting on with. Thus Paddy arrived at our home as a new member of our family. His arrival was unexpected and we had nowhere to put him, so we ensconced him  in a spare aquarium for his first few days of settling in. It was a far cry from his batchelor pad in the woods.

Not long after this, Pets at Home revised their policies such that they would only buy from a list of specific dealers – not casual hobbyists. Bunty’s mother was left with more guinea pigs than she could provide for. Paddy’s six sons came to live with us. We bought and customised a big hutch, with permanent access to our garden. Paddy had a new batchelor pad.

Paddy at bottom left

As they got older, the guinea pigs paired off, separating  into territorial areas of the garden. Paddy and his smallest son, Orkney, made their home on a patch of lawn edged by flowerbeds and a birch tree. Orkney spent all summer patrolling the edges of their territory against the other guinea pigs. Paddy had no inclination to follow suit: all his sons already accepted him as Top Pig.

In Wintertime, Paddy and Orkney shared the penthouse apartment in the guinea-pig tower block I had built for them all. The pigs like their tower well enough, but nothing beats the sight of them running and jumping unhindered through the grasses and Summer foliage. This year, the elderly Paddy began to take breaks from all the  running and jumping, to sit under a plank propped against the fence and watch the world go slowly by.

Paddy and Orkney in May (favourite plank in background)

Today dawned glorious and warm. As the sun was burning away the morning mist across the fields, Bunty fed Paddy some vegetable off-cuts. Paddy, feral creature that he is, scurried away to eat them in private. This afternoon, he was lying in the shade under his plank again, his boot-button eyes gazing into the buttercups. He had shuffled off his mortal coil, at the grand old age of five and a half.

I usually go to pieces when a pet dies, but this time it was different. He died quickly and quietly, in his old age, in his own territory – an expansive place full of grass to graze on and secret passageways that he had made among the bedding plants and beneath the tree. He died in freedom, with his favourite son close by. We buried him in his special place under the plank.

His last photo

Rest in peace, wild Paddy.

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.