Like many people, my relationship with zoos has changed over the years. As a child growing up in Scotland, I loved visiting Edinburgh Zoo and didn’t notice that the large animals were kept in small cages. As an adult, I did notice and began to avoid zoos except in the company of children. But everyone had assured me that the enclosures were much improved and so, a few weeks ago, my husband and I joined a throng of people, mostly in their twenties, for Late Night at London Zoo, an evening of animals, food, and drink. Clearly, I was not alone in thinking that quaffing Pimms, while observing lions and camels, might make me forget the sad side of their captivity.
Our first stop was the gift shop where we were given complementary animal hats. We could hear a bird, perhaps one of the hawks, screaming in the aviary but on all sides were animal masks, books, cartoons and almost irresistible stuffed animals. Looking at this cozy barrage, I was reminded that, whether we go to the zoo or not, wild animals are present in our lives. Babies routinely snuggle up to lions and bears and many children’s books are about animals who behave much like humans. We chose our hats (tiger, penguin) and headed for the lions.
As predicted the enclosure was large and pleasant. Just before 7:00 the lions – two females and two yearlings – appeared, sniffing the trails of meat that had been laid by a keeper. At first, they didn’t seem so different from their stuffed counterparts. The younger lions played like large kittens. But then the male loped across the enclosure bearing his huge mane like a badge of office. In his sinuous gait, his utter imperviousness to anthropomorphisation, I glimpsed the rapacious power he would bring to surviving in the wild – the opposite of cozy.
For all our efforts to colonize and co-opt them, to turn them into toys and games, animals remain obdurately themselves.
Bypassing the hairy pigs, we made our way to a different corner of the animal kingdom: the komodo dragon lizards. Low to the ground, scaly, six or seven feet long, the dragons make not the slightest effort to be cuddly. London Zoo has two: a male and a female who have to be kept separate lest they do each other serious harm. The zoo keeper told us that the female, if she can’t find a male, is capable of parthenogenesis – she can fertilize her own eggs. So much for IVF. Although both dragons sat utterly still while the zoo keeper talked, they can outrun a human and have a viciously poisonous bite.
In search of more sympathetic company we headed to the obvious place: the monkey enclosure, full of lively primates. Again the monkeys had a graceful space and several showed off for our benefit, leaping from branch to branch. But, like the lions, they only fleetingly resembled their stuffed counterparts. Particularly striking was the spider monkey which used its prehensile tail like a fifth hand. Does any toy capture that?
We called on the aardvarks but they were still asleep, waiting to begin their night’s activities, and so we moved on to one of the most storied animals, the giraffe. In a dimly lit, tall-ceilinged barn we found three startlingly graceful giraffes. What an utterly improbable animal. As we looked at them and they, with their beautiful, large liquid eyes, looked back at us, I knew I had been wrong to wait for nearly thirty years to be reminded of reality. For all our efforts to colonize and co-opt them, to turn them into toys and games, animals remain obdurately themselves. Perhaps we all need to be reminded of that periodically.