Ever since the World Wildlife Fund adopted the panda as its trademark I have felt slightly uneasy, even guilty, about zoos. Should all those splendid creatures really be confined to small cages or enclosures and exposed to the idle, junk-food-consuming gaze of the general public as they sleep or pace up and down for lack of anything else to do (the animals, I mean, not the general public)? Whenever I pass a zoo, I begin to half-remember lines from William Blake: tygers burning bright, all heaven in a rage because of the robin redbreast being in a cage, and that kind of thing.
The other day, for reasons both complex and far too boring to be related, I found myself at a loose end in the afternoon in a suburb of Edinburgh in which that city’s zoo happens to be located.
I am glad to say, canny honorary Scotsman as I was for the day, that I got a fifty percent rebate on my entry ticket because the weather was foul — snow everywhere — and the vast majority of the animals being of tropical origin (rather like the populations of many European inner cities, in fact), they had retreated indoors into their centrally heated quarters in which, however, they were not easily visible to visitors. Only the Patagonian sea lions disported themselves happily in their ice-covered pond; even the polar bears, by now no doubt accustomed to the superior comforts of their native regions brought about by global warming, had retreated indoors.
I don’t know how many chimpanzees most zoos have, but Edinburgh seemed to have quite a lot. I counted nine, at the least. They are subject to the detailed research of primatologists there, because as we know, man (at least his DNA) is 99 percent chimpanzee, and therefore observing chimpanzees closely will tell us all about ourselves. Man is also 98 percent mouse, of course; though metaphorically speaking, he is 100 percent rat.