7th October 2016 – £21.50 per adult
Joined by Shelagh Deeney, Conal Deeney, and Florence Leat
Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo. Well believe it, little Florence. It’s daddy’s time to shine. Taking one’s kid to the zoo is a rite of passage up there with teaching them to ride a bike, nursing a broken heart, and catching them smoking. I wasn’t messing around here: her first zoo proper will be the London one, the mothership of animal prisons.
My memories of it were haunted by experience. Long queues, screaming kids, pokey cages, expensive ice cream. And yet, there was still a longing, a paternal instinct, for my daughter’s first memory to be an example of what humans do to their fellow beasts.
I’ve been in the heat of summer, when the din of bawling children has made me want to go the same way as Harambe, but in the cool, school-time autumn, it was very pleasant indeed.
My method for experiencing zoos is to start with the lower value animals (birds, butterflies, tapir), then work through the middling ones (giraffes, camels, reptiles), up to the shining lights (tigers, monkeys, shop). Though surprisingly, experiencing the butterfly tunnel with my twenty month old daughter was magical. The beauty of the creatures complimented with the far-out background music was a perfect moment of parenthood for which I can only thank London Zoo. See, no sarcastic comment. Sometimes I can be very charming.
There’s an evident attempt at getting us as close to the animals as possible without disturbing them. They’re also blessed with a good cast of critters. The monkeys far outweigh the tapirs. The squirrel monkey “enclosure” has the little bleeders running amok all around you. One sat on my shoe and another walked along a rope above our heads and grabbed an old lady’s hair. I near shat with laughter.
Every time I thought something along the lines of, “hmm, the bugs section. I’m not that bothered.” I was profoundly mistaken. It’s the simplicity of having a rope leading from a tank to another tank with ants crawling all over it that’s a testament to the imagination of ZSL, or a usually boring bit of pond life brought to life with a magnifying glass on rails. There’s a weird bit with comedian Stewart Lee doing a comedy skit as a talking spider that I didn’t really get. The knockabout kids TV tone wasn’t a good fit for his caustic style.
The new lion enclosure presented an ersatz Indian village replete with monkeys and them little one person car tuk tuk things. The animals were pretty inactive, but who cares? It’s not a Disney film. Things get a little more depressing when you see the lions themselves, pacing the grass bare whilst yearning for a sprawling kingdom. I know, they’d probably be dead if left in the wild, but its emblematic of a wider problem.
Naked mole rats are gross and fantastic, but their presentation was noticeably threadbare. In fact, there were a few parts that were looking a touch weather beaten, but London Zoo has made its intentions clear with renovation and I’m sure it’ll be a matter of time before a lick of paint’s applied, i.e. the reptile house could do with an entire rethink, i.e. stamping all the snakes to death.
Seeing any primate in a cage brings on mixed emotions, but London Zoo have done the right thing with their gorillas and separated us from the glass to prevent wankers baying for their attention/frustration. The baby gorilla might be the cutest thing I’ve ever seen, but as Queen Victoria said, they’re human all too human, and therefore bored, all too bored.
N.B. The male gorilla broke out of his London Zoo enclosure just six days after our visit.
Then, the blockbusting event: baby tigers. Yes, no enclosure compares to the wild, but their little family seemed to be having a whale of a time, as was ours. ZSL get you right up close without feeling invasive, like this strange hinterland between watching them in the forests of Sumatra, and watching them in the forests of Sumatra on the telly.
One feels the ZSL’s environmental message is a sincere one and they’re internationally recognised as doing genuinely valuable work. It basically does everything right that Sea Life London doesn’t. It’s still technically animal prison, but one of those Scandinavian prisons that works, not an American one that doesn’t.
We spent the best part of three hours there and finished exhausted without having seen a good quarter of it. Perhaps it was the perfect weather, time of day, unusually active animals, small amount of fellow visitors or a host of other excuses, but we had the perfect day. Four stars.