Feeling smug at the zoo
I’m not an avid zoo visitor. But, if I must, I go for old-fashioned elephant rides and chimpanzees in funny hats, pouring PG Tips over each other. True, it’s not the kind of entertainment that most of us over-10s would choose. But at least it feels more honest than the sanctimonious double standards that are the order of the day in most modern wildlife parks.
All the talk is of conservation, of preserving endangered species and of the heroic struggles at artificial insemination that these noble goals seem always to entail. But underneath it’s the same old voyeurism as we watch these poor caged beasts do their tricks for us. The more pissing and farting, silly noises and cuddly new-borns the better.
The San Diego Zoo in California is a vast, state of the art example of the genre (with a literary claim to fame of a sort too: it was the planned location for the dinosaur theme park in The Lost World). As such, it reveals these double standards even more clearly than most.
Of course, it’s fun in a way. Even in the pouring rain on Good Friday -- which the waitress in the café sweetly, if uncomprehendingly, called “Happy Friday” – I keenly queued up to see a trio of giant pandas, two crashed out and one chewing bamboo. And the bottom-scratching monkeys bottom-scratched very nicely.
But the moral high ground soon got a bit tiring. Animal conservation, it seems, is one context in which it is still apparently quite OK to blame the Third World. As we were repeatedly reminded, many of these animals were faced with extinction because of the bad habits of the natives: hunting, destroying habitats, selling their horns or whatever. It was thanks to the efforts of us enlightened types in the USA and Europe that the safety of all these rare species were secured.
And not just safe, but happy. One advertisement had the nerve to claim that “Every monkey would like to live in the San Diego zoo”. And a grossly politically-correct notice broached the tricky issue of disabled animals. You’ve guessed it. No discrimination against the physically challenged here. Those that have lost limbs get sensitively cared for in an appropriate and supportive community. I couldn’t help wondering if the lions had got the message about how they should treat the weaker brethren. Aren’t they supposed to be food?
The more insidious side of all this came out in the panda enclosure. San Diego has had stunning success in impregnating its pandas – artificially of course (so far as I can discover no panda in the world has copulated naturally in the last decade). One of the young arrivals has been given the name Mei Sheng, which they explain is a Chinese word with two different meanings. The first is “Born in the USA”. The other? . . . “Beautiful Life”. Different meanings perhaps – but a single message.
But how beautiful a life is it really for an animal in this zoo? Is “every monkey”, as they claim, right to want to move in? I could overlook the small cages (though I wasn’t convinced that the “psychological barriers” – ie large ditches with, presumably, nasty concealed spikes – were much of an improvement from the animal’s point of view on good old-fashioned bars, even if they do make the visitor happier).
I was more worried by the depressive sleeping habits of these beasts. Almost every one, we were assured by our guide on the bus tour, sleeps for something like 18 hours a day. If that is the case in the wild, then the jungle or savannah must be a quiet, slumberous kind of place. Rather more likely, it seemed to me, in the zoo they’re sleeping to escape.
The visitors, sheltering under the convenient alibi of saving the planet, proceed much as they ever have done. They buy panda memorabilia in the Panda Shop. They gawp at one-day old antelopes which would be better left to their mothers. They shriek at the idea of a giraffe who can piss around a radius of 6 feet. And they book into “Roar and Snoar” sleep-overs.
Meanwhile the Zoo’s PR machine allows itself to forget from time to time the conservationist mission, and turns our attention to the elephant that took a bit-part in a made for TV version of Born Free (sic!). As another advertising slogan runs, “San Diego Zoo: where the animals are the stars”.
My first reaction was to think that the conservation effort simply wasn’t worth the effort. If this is the hypocrisy it takes, shouldn’t we just let the pandas float gracefully into extinction.
My second was a bit more moderate. If it really is important to keep these lines going, why don’t we just let the biologists get on with their artificial insemination in private? Give the rest of us our chimpanzees’ tea parties and make us face up to what we really want in a zoo?