In a complete role reversal, my son took me to the zoo today. I have very mixed feelings about zoos in general. The thought of confining animals designed for vast landscapes has always seemed wrong and there are truly horror stories of the conditions in which many animals have been imprisoned. On the other hand, modern zoos do a huge amount to aid the preservation of wildlife these days and, with captive breeding programmes, monitoring and study, are able to make a substantial contribution to the conservation of endangered species and habitats. And then there is the emotive argument… unless we can see, smell… ‘feel’… the beauty of these animals… why would we learn to care about what happens to them at all?
We went to Whipsnade, not very far from where we now live and, oddly enough, a place I visited several times as a child. My father was stationed in the south, much of my family was in the north and even then, the road between was familiar. I have seen the zoo evolve over the decades.
I remember the lions’ den as it was back then. It used to be just above the great lion carved into the chalk of the hillside; a small, round enclosure with a deep ditch and high bars. The lions had nowhere to run, no space to play, no way to be lions. It hurt to see them there, even then, even with the childhood wonder of seeing real lions. It was a far cry from the cavies and wallabies that wander the park at will or the prairie dogs that colonised Bison Hill.
I went there too in my late teens with my husband and by the time I took my own children there, years later, the paddocks were considerably larger, but still many of the animals seemed to interact with visitors largely because there was little else to do.
Today was different. The paddocks are huge… still not a wild plain or jungle, but open and full of things to do. The animals paid little attention to the visitors… those that were not hiding from the rain were too busy finding food. The chimpanzees were a case in point. I well remember the sad faces that looked out with a bored hopelessness or shrieked at the gawping crowds with eyes like our own. Today they were foraging, working for their food by finding it themselves and completely absorbed by the task. It was possible to watch them be chimpanzees not exhibits.
No zoo is perfect, no captivity is ‘right’… but mankind has devastated many species to the point of extinction and beyond, to a point of no return. Scientists estimate that up to 200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every single day. The major zoos, like Whipsnade, are all involved in conservation and their role is now an important one. Some species, like the northern white rhino, of which only three are left in the world, survive only in captivity and, if we are to attempt to redress at least some of the damage we have done, it may be that the wildlife parks and zoos have an important role to play… and the wealth of young animals was some indication of that.
Today, we took the cameras.. mine, already damaged beyond repair and limited was further hampered by the weather… and the weather was vile. Half the animals, very sensibly, refused to come out of their enclosures, but amid the exotic and beautiful, local wildlife also thrives in what has become a safe-haven with a plentiful food supply. I missed the shot of the great spotted woodpecker as my camera would only focus on the teeming rain. There were other birds though. “You’re obsessed,” complained my son as, drenched and mud-spattered, I ignored the cheetahs and chased yet another shot of the kites. And why not? These are wild creatures after all… a success story of conservation and reintroduction of a species close to extinction…not captives of man’s mistakes.