The Zoo
By Ivor Griffiths
In early February sleet is falling as I drive along a bumpy A road. Looking left I see a rhinoceros in a field with some monkeys. They look cold. Parking the car I wonder if they should be outdoors in these temperatures. Leaving the car park and an overwhelming smell of ammonia blasts the senses, eyes watering and sneezing then an unexpected vision of Monkeys running around outside, in February, I hope they are not brass. The first thing you see is a little like a Martian landscape: red dust and craters. The entire park appears to have been created on a plot of land not suitable for anything other than the housing of captive wild animals.

Now I am not a fierce animal rights activist, however, the site of animals like rhinos, lions and tigers roaming about in enclosures that seem claustrophobic is disturbing. The premise upon which the zoo was founded is the conservation of Sumatran Tigers; a noble cause perhaps. Is it best served by keeping Sumatran Tigers penned in for the amusement of other predators?

Zoos are institutions waiting to be banned, like dog fighting, bear baiting, fox hunting and bare knuckle prize fighting have been. They fascinate me though; for me it is the power which lies at the root of it. We are at the top of the food chain now and this is reassuring. I cant help being fascinated by the incarcerated animals, even though my presence maintains the institution that I disagree with. I suppose there are counter arguments to my opinion, but I do not care about that, because I know I am right. Then again when I walked around the animal park I first of all bought a notebook and a pen at the zoo shop. The pen I chose was in the shape of a snake, which I thought would inspire me; it was too big though, so it was just annoying.

The entry fee is quite hefty and at 7.00 per adult the attractions need to be up to scratch to satisfy a demanding visitor.The first animals that are seen properly are the cheetahs, through a fence; they appear a little incongruous and almost sublime in the surreal landscape. The tigers are fascinating though; when I was there they were about to be fed. A talk was being given, a hundred hardy souls, who had braved the chilling northerly wind, stood on a raised walkway, fifty feet in the air, the talk was about tigers in the wild. I was listening while observing two tigers through a glass-viewing panel, pacing restlessly, occasionally growling. Now and then one would stop and peer through the glass. Looking into a tigers eyes from six inches away is an interesting experience, even when separated by bulletproof glass. The primeval fear our distant ancestors had for such predators is understandable, a need to reassure myself that I was safe confirmed it: to them we are just food. Looking into that Tigers eyes I could see instinctive intelligence, impatience at confinement, anger and frustration. The eyes were cold, showing no emotion for me at all, I was just an object.

The cage doors opened as the park ranger announced their entrance; they hurried into the compound to perform. I thought that a circus is a circus is a circus, calling one a zoo does not change that. Turning round I saw a rat run across the path from inside the Tigers enclosure. I looked to follow the rats progress and realised that in the zoo, apart from the humans, he was the only happy animal in here. He disappeared down a drainpipe. The rain was getting heavier, the Tigers looked bedraggled and damp as they went about their act: clambering up and down poles to get food.

I realised I was enjoying the spectacle, felt vaguely guilty about this and decided to have a look at the caged birds to confirm the irony of it all: predators not able to hunt, birds not able to fly (not properly anyway) and humans not able to resist looking at it all.

Before getting to see the birds I saw some bats, I had not seen them this close before, and they were amazing things. They actually do crawl along looking like Dracula; they hang upside down, with what looks like a cape wrapped around them. The way they fly is to glide, but in the small cage they were in they didnt fly far. As I turned to leave I heard a shout, Ivor? it was a hesitant male voice. I turned round; saw a fat red faced bloke, short, about five foot two, bald, like me, with a quizzical look on his face.Is that you mate? It is, isnt it, Ivor, Green Lane School? Leazes End? Yes. Who are you? I enquired suspiciously, anxious to avoid contact with any of the numerous bad influences from my past.

Paul, Paul McCoy, how you doing, must be twenty years? he said.A life sentence, I thought unkindly, just been released then I suppose.

Good to see you Paul. How are you keeping? I said unconvincingly.

Paul was a geezer, it has to be said. He was sent off to a seminary when he was twelve by his Mum in the hopes that he would reform and be a priest. I met him when I was fourteen, he had just been released from Borstal. Introduced to our class by the form teacher he went on to explain who he was, why he was there and what he had done. He then made the mistake of asking Paul to get up and say a few words about why he quit the seminary.

Paul reminded me of a Tiger in many ways: uncompromising, untameable and unrepentant: he was not a willing performer; he stood up in front of all of us. Fucking bollocks is what it is he said, and then, tipping his cap to the class, he left, in high dudgeon. Forever afterwards he was a marked man. He always managed to escape though, like the rat: he always had a bolthole to disappear down, while the wilder beasts he mingled with were locked up. We exchanged pleasantries for a while. He had joined the army, stayed fifteen years, has a wife and three kids and drives a taxi for a living. My mobile rang, answering it I bid him farewell and went to the shop and caf, not enough heating but the coffee was good and the staff pleasant. Would I go again? I bought a season ticket.

Ivor Griffiths
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