It has been very rainy and soggy here these past couple of weeks. As (bad) luck would have it the miserable weather also teamed with all sorts of flu viruses flying around, two of which caught us by surprise one after the other. So, we spent quite a long time simply shut at home, watching the thick sheet of rain enveloping Vicenza in its cold embrace and making sure that we were well stocked up with Lemsip and Calpol.
It is little wonder that on the first glorious morning when the sun broke through the overcast skies, we made a dash for our little red car and stifling the last vestiges of the persistent cough which had tormented us for several days, we headed outside of the city.
We didn’t travel far, as our destination – the local zoo – is only about half an hour away from Vicenza. Called Parco Faunistico Cappeller, it is a nice place to spend a few hours and it has a varied collection – from local foxes and flamingos…
…to more exotic animals like a pygmy hippo…
… a pre-historic looking cassowary bird from Australia (just look at those feet!)…
…and even an albino wallaby with its own albino baby.
To be completely honest with you, zoos – albeit I used to love them in my childhood – nowadays fill me with mixed feelings. I remember reading Gerald Durrell’s books as a child, especially the ones describing his animal-finding expeditions in Latin America. I loved them! All those descriptions of coming across rare and endangered species which Durrell and his wife would capture and bring back to the UK, initially to sell to other zoos and then to populate the zoo which he established on the Channel island of Jersey.
Those books used to fire my imagination and planted the first seeds of wanderlust in me. For years I actually dreamed of visiting Durrell’s zoo in Jersey and whilst this is yet to happen, if I was travelling or visiting a new place, my itinerary always included the local zoo.
For example, I recall my mother taking me to see the zoos in the Bulgarian and the Czech capitals. The old zoo in Sofia was located right in the middle of the city, it was compact and I remember it as a very green place. This is where I saw a crocodile for the first time in my life and we also witnessed something which became part of our family folklore – a story so told and retold that even nowadays we just need to say ‘Do you remember the camel in Sofia Zoo?!’ to know exactly what we are talking about.
As it happened, whilst we were walking round the zoo, a group of workers were trying to move the camel from its old to its new enclosure. Unfortunately, they were not holding its reins too tight and the animal, panicked by the people around it, wriggled free and ran across the zoo. Eventually, the workers managed to capture it and led it to its enclosure. Seeing the camel run free with people clearing its path as fast as they could remained one of the visually most memorable things for me as a child.
The visit to the zoo in Prague with my mum when I was 15 was a completely different experience. For the first time in my life I saw a zoo which was big, spacious and designed like a proper park with large enclosures adapted to the needs of the different animals. I remember that it took us about a day to see it all and I was really taken with the pink flamingos.
It was very different from the zoo in my home town of Varna which is not only small, but the enclosures are rather on the tiny side. I used to go there often when I was a child and, obviously, then I loved it, never stopping to think about how comfortable or, respectively, uncomfortable, the animals must have felt in their confined spaces with hundreds of faces passing by them on busy days.
Years afterwards, when I was working as a regional correspondent for a Bulgarian daily newspaper, I was given the task to write a fun article for the weekend supplement. It had to be something entertaining and light, as my editor informed me.
After some thought, I decided to go to Varna Zoo and then describe my visit. I wrote my piece quickly, not investing a lot of thought in it, and sent it off. My editor called me the day after, very excited. He told me that everyone in the newsroom had loved my zoo piece and that the editor-in-chief even read a couple of extracts from it during the morning meeting. When he reached the part where I was describing how one of the zoo workers had rubbed the lion’s little fluffy ears through the thick mesh of the fence all the while calling it ‘My little kitten!’, apparently everyone at the meeting swooned and lauded my ‘attention to detail’.
I was gobsmacked! As a regional correspondent for the third largest Bulgarian city I had written on many different topics. On a daily basis I would send dispatches on political, criminal and other serious themes. I even managed to get an exclusive from a leading at the time political figure about the terrible fires which were ravaging the Bulgarian countryside that particular summer. Yet, I had to write about the Varna Zoo lion’s ‘fluffy little ears’ to get the newsroom’s and the editor-in-chief’s praise.
As a young and impressionable person I thought a lot about it in the years to follow. In a way it showed me that, perhaps, writing sweet fluffy pieces is the easiest way to get people’s attention and that in a world so weighted down by scary and dramatic events, sometimes something so simple as reading about a lion having its ears rubbed can give you your daily dose of warm fuzzy feeling (which nowadays is achieved by watching cute videos your Facebook friends have shared in their news feeds).
Anyway and getting back to zoos. With the years passing, I started asking myself if they really are needed. I mean, yes, as a child I loved going to the zoo, but did the animals love being there in their enclosures instead of roaming the wild expanses of their natural habitats.
Also, it is rather difficult and costly to maintain a proper zoo with enough space and adequate food for the different species. It is also really easy to get it wrong or for the zoo to become a casualty of war or natural disaster. Only a few days ago I read about an abandoned zoo in the Middle East where due to the political situation the animals had died of lack of food and their mummified corpses are still in the enclosures as there is no-one to remove them. The accompanying pictures broke my heart.
I remember also the appeals by the zoos during the difficult years which Bulgaria suffered when they didn’t have enough resources to feed the animals and keep them warm in the cold winters. And I also remember a visit many years ago to the then new purposefully built Sofia Zoo where in the heat of summer the animals were in their concrete enclosures without any shadow and a large fish died in front of my eyes in its tiny murky aquarium.
At the same time, I understand that there is valuable work going on in zoos around the world – studying and preserving animal species which otherwise would have already disappeared off the face of the earth. All the while, I am not really convinced we need zoos as such – as places where animals are reduced to a mere spectacle and where, no matter what, people still behave worse than the proverbial ‘animals’.
I remember visiting London Zoo several years ago. The highlight of my visit was a young caretaker who, holding a microphone in hand, stood in front of one of the larger primates’ enclosure and gave a very passionate talk about his charges. He talked about the character of each of the primates, how they are taken care of, what measures London Zoo is taking to protect them in their wild habitats and so on.
People crowded around him, listened carefully, asked questions. Straight after the talk, a young man holding the hand of his girlfriend approached the primates’ enclosure. He had a rolled newspaper in his other hand and used it to tap vigorously the glass separating the zoo visitors from the primates. He was trying to get one of the large males to do something, to perform a trick, to do some ‘monkeying’ for him and his girlfriend.
The young caretaker who had just finished his talk was livid. He approached the man and his girlfriend and very sternly yet politely told them to stop banging on the glass partition and stop irritating the primates. You could tell how passionate he was about his job and the animals.
Last year, during our first visit to our local zoo here in Vicenza, the above mentioned Parco Faunistico Cappeller, I came to witness something even more heartbreaking.
We were enjoying our day in the zoo and had stopped to admire the tiny monkeys in one of the enclosures. They were really lovely to watch with their cute little faces and mischievous attitude. Just then two children – a boy and a girl – of about ten years old came running towards the enclosure. They were laughing loudly and proceeded to irritate the monkeys. They shouted and screamed, gestured wildly, pulled faces, stuck their tongues out. One of the little monkeys became really distressed and banged its head on the glass partition several times.
I was really outraged. There were lots of people around, yet no-one would do anything. I asked a couple standing nearby if they were the parents of the two children. They vigorously shook their heads and then with their eyes pointed to a man and a woman who were laughing.
I turned to them and saw them encouraging the children to continue their torment of the monkeys. I got really, really upset. And told them so in no uncertain terms. Yes, I spoke to them in English, as my Italian was really basic at the time. I think they got the message. They pulled the children away and walked off, yet the minute we left, I turned around and saw the same children running back to the monkeys’ enclosure to continue shouting and laughing at them.
Seeing that little monkey hurling itself in distress on the glass partition was one of the most heartbreaking things I have ever witnessed. I was so incensed, that after our visit I actually sat down and wrote an email to the zoo, detailing what had happened and asking what measures were in place to defend the animals from such abuse. I never heard back.
So, it was largely with mixed feelings that I approached our visit to the zoo a few days ago. The weather was lovely and the blue skies were begging us to come out of the house and enjoy the first true day of spring. Parco Faunistico Cappeller was almost empty, we saw less than ten other people exploring its vast collection.
It was a really sunny and peaceful day with the animals happily enjoying the warm weather. A constant choir of bird and mammal sounds was pervading the air. Ducks were relaxing on the pebbled shores of the pond…
… and in its clear waters large sturgeons were gracefully swimming.
The aviaries of the parrots were still half-wrapped in plastic sheets to keep them warm inside. Seeing all the plastic, I couldn’t resist and made a Dexter-related joke, as I had been passing the rainy fluey days binge-watching this TV series.
And even though I am still unclear in myself as to the answer to my earlier question, namely ‘Do we need zoos at all?’, after all I was pleased that we spent the day there showing the different animals to our little daughter and finishing the visit in the farm animals’ corner where we fed the goats and the ponies sweetcorn and apples.
It is through contact with animals – direct and indirect – that we, as adults, educate our children so as to be more understanding and loving towards the world we live in. We can only take responsibility for ourselves and our own actions. It is a pity that not everyone is on the same page with regards to this. But the important thing is not to let other people’s actions to affect your own and spoil the good work done for the preservation of the animal world.