Friday, 10 October 2014

In search of the elusive unicorn..

We've just got back from a visit to a zoo, which is quite a common occurrence in our household.  Our five year old is animal crazy, so a visit to see some in a zoo is always high on her 'to do' list, which leaves me with a dilemma.  I've always been a bit of a conservationist so zoos give me a conundrum.  Having said that I can't claim to have any detailed knowledge of conservation.  For example it's beyond me how a country (no names, no pack drill) can have a whole fleet of ships for whaling, purely for scientific research?  What are they researching?  Other than '101 uses for blubber' it's difficult for an ignoramus like me to comprehend the scope of their studies?  If they want to find out how whales communicate or navigate the oceans with such accuracy I would have thought it best to do that while they're alive?  Ah, my naivety..

Giraffes, nature's way of pruning the top half of a tree.
Most zoos these days will have part of their website dedicated to telling you how much of a conscience they have, how they are the guardians of the world's species and the fact that the public is admitted to have a peek at the animals under their protection is a positive educational side effect on their conservation.  I see their point, there is no doubt that since mankind came to dominate the globe its ceaseless persecution of every other species has been shocking.  So much so that the only way to preserve some animals is to take them in to protective custody as such.  We have visited some zoos that do this very well and create an environment that is as near as realistically possible to the breed's natural habitat.  I say 'as near as possible' because there is only so much you can do to twin Cheshire with the jungles of Borneo.

However we have also visited some which fell more toward the cash cow option rather than towards the preservation aspect.  Rows of small cages containing primates that would far rather be swinging from tree to tree and terrariums that are devoid of any greenery, and in fact are of lesser length than the snake they contain, are not an edifying sight.  It's more reminiscent of Stalag Luft III from The Great Escape rather than the plains of the Serengeti from Born Free.  From the point of view of the customer, I can appreciate that if you've paid to see animals it's animals you want to see, not areas of greenery with rustling leaves where they move around freely out of your line of sight.  But small cages and the absence of any aspect of a habitat that facilitates natural behaviour seems so, well I guess Victorian.  Showing us a cheetah and saying how it can run at speeds up to 75mph is great, but they forget to add that in its compound, which is 20 meters square, it can only get to 15mph.  I would far rather they built it a home in the shape of a greyhound track and feed it by attaching lunch to the electric hare, now that would pull in a crowd. Ah, there speaks the Victorian in me.

Steve McQueen escaping from Stalag Luft III circa 1945, dressed as a resident from Malibu beach and riding a bike that wasn't built until 16 years after the event.  Still, accuracy isn't everything.  (I'm being sarcastic, obviously it is..)
But there are other dilemmas that visits to the zoo bring.  Our daughter's favourite animal is a unicorn, so we get the inevitable question while we are walking round, 'where are the unicorns'?  Naturally we do what any good parent does when confronted with a tricky question, we work out which lie is going to give us the least amount of grief later (after all good parenting is all about sincerity, if you can fake that you've got it made).  For example if we respond 'they have the day off',  then she'll suggest we come back tomorrow.  So rather than tell the truth and rain on her parade, we just explain that they don't like living in zoos.  She looks at the other animals and you can tell she's thinking 'I don't blame them'..

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