(captivated visitors at Edinburgh Zoo)

I am ambivalent about zoos. I imagine I feel the same way as many people: I love looking at animals, but I have an innate dislike of seeing them in captivity. The only zoo I have visited as an adult was the biodome in Montreal, about five years ago. I remember thinking that the idea of re-creating and encountering several different ecosystems was really quite appealing, but I found the reality deeply upsetting — all those poor beasties stuck indoors! I also remember being very angry — at myself, for being so easily drawn in by what was essentially a marketing concept for a rather bad zoo, as well as at the biodome, for having the gall to give their big glass cage an educational, conservationist, and environmental gloss.

Some zoos, though, can legitimately claim that conservation and research are central to their business, and Edinburgh Zoo is one of these. We had visitors this weekend, and I went there with them for the first time. I was impressed by the size and careful design of the site itself, which extends for several acres up the side of Corstorphine Hill. I was also impressed by the seriousness of the zoo’s various conservation and species-protection projects, and by the straightforward way they put this at the heart of their self-presentation. I was disturbed by a few things: carnivores in old-fashioned menagerie-style enclosures, for example, and the spectacle of the captive polar bear was deeply melancholy. But if the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s ambitious reorganisation plans come to fruition, perhaps these outmoded and troubling zoo-elements will soon be gone.

Anyway, I’m only mentioning my (still-existing) zoo-worries because I wanted to show you some pictures. I am not in the least a spiritual person, but I found this rhino a wondrous and near-spiritual sort of presence.

(rhino phiz)

did you know their arses looked like this? The rhino-skin’s different textures, with its armoured plates and folds, is truly amazing.

(rhino arse)

I find the back-ends of beasties strangely fascinating — perhaps it is the way they de-familiarise familiar animals. Or perhaps I just like arses.

(zebra arse)

. . .and you just can’t be sniffy about the famous penguin parade. (This, as the keepers kept reminding us, is entirely voluntary: the gate of the enclosure is opened at a set time each day and, if the penguins fancy it, they shuffle on out for a wee walk. Sometimes they don’t, and there is no ‘parade’).

The proudly parading emperors were impressive:

But this wee gentoo penguin, tramping through the autumn leaves, was my favourite . . .

I think she or he is cannily plotting something. What do you reckon?

12 thoughts on “captive

  1. The zoo near me is a “natural habitat” zoo, which means you don’t walk from cage to cage, but rather, meander along a path that cuts through their roaming area. Since the animals have such a big space to wander, sometimes you really don’t get to see them. It seems nicer for the animals than other zoos , but still it’s just a zoo. It’s the North Carolina Zoo, nczoo.org.

    Zoo. The more I type it, the funnier a word it becomes. Zoo.


  2. I used to spend a lot of time in Edinburgh zoo when my three were tiny (I well remember tramping up the hill with the double buggy with a buggy board attached – fantastic for the calf muscles). I can’t remember an occasion when the penguin parade didn’t happen and even in the fog of postnatal depression it never failed to make me smile. I can understand why people choose to have their weddings there.


  3. I loved Edinburgh Zoo when I went because of the Penguins. I loved the parade and the whole penguin enclosure – i think it is really well designed. I remember being quite upset about the monkeys and the polar bear though – they had redone the Tiger Enclosure and I thought it was amazing. The problem with zoos is that they are really important for conservation of species – when you realise how many tigers etc are actually in the wild, it is completely shocking.


  4. *Belatedly reads other comments on this post*

    I absolutely agree about the polar bear – when I visited they had a sign up saying “Don’t worry about the polar bear’s pacing, she is simply re-enacting the annual migration she would undertake in the wild.”

    I’m not an expert on mammalian behaviour, but it looked damned like stereotypic pacing to me…


  5. Oh I so agree with all your zoo concerns. Having grown up in a country where many animals found in British zoos roamed wild, I find it very hard to visit zoos. What possible reason can there be to keep a polar bear in a zoo in Edinburgh? Do they give explanations as to what research or conservation they are doing? Sorry, sounding off a bit, but zoos strike a nerve with me. Having said all of that, I love the photo’s! Especially the Rhino!


  6. I just showed the penguin to my tired and miserable son, back from a long day at school. Thank you – it cheered him enormously! Reminds me of the Ruskin quote that one ‘cannot be angry when one looks at a penguin’. I really don’t think you can, can you? Regarding the rhino arse, that really is amazing. I wonder if you could interpret it in some textured knitting … no, I am just being silly now…I’ll blame it on the penguin.


  7. Beautiful photos, I love the rhino arse and the penguins just make me laugh, they are intrinsically funny creatures.

    I feel much the same way about zoos as you do. We live close to Bristol zoo and sometimes, late at night when it’s quiet, we can hear the lions roaring. It’s magical yet disturbing at the same time because something in the back of my monkey brain always yells, “lion, lion, quick, climb a tree!” It’s a noise that literally makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.


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