The zoo was too small and looked underfunded. Scruffy, even. And, to a person who is very torn about the whole issue of keeping animals in captivity, it hadn’t been my first choice for a day out. Still, we were on holiday, we were in a remote area, and there weren’t a huge number of other options for tourists. So, combined with the undoubted strength of ‘pester power’, the zoo it was.
We’d already encountered a few weird and wonderful creatures. The lemurs had been so close to us as they sat cross legged on the inner window ledge of their enclosure. At one point, eight were sat staring at us, but the core number was two. The same two. One was clearly a mum, and one her baby… The mum picked at her baby’s fur, and the baby fidgeted. It was an image of domestic bliss, till another lemur began to poke the mother in the eye. I hoped that the baby wouldn’t learn this abusive behaviour from its older enclosure mate, especially as the mother lemur seemed to allow the abuse. She didn’t retaliate, vocally protest or even move away. I was reminded of myself – not long out of an emotionally abusive relationship – and I shivered in distaste.
The zoo’s selection of monkeys was a small one, and we quickly tired of the bullying lemur, so moved on to the next section where a red panda, curled into a ball, was asleep atop a modified dovecote. We all agreed that the red panda was cute, though boring, but just as we began to move away, we saw the panda’s legs twitch and it rolled towards the edge of the dovecote. The red panda was no longer boring as it plummeted to the ground, limbs outsplayed, and landed on the muddy grass, seemingly unharmed. Not having learnt its lesson, it climbed on the network of ropes to position itself back on the dovecote once again. It rolled into a ball and, presumably, fell straight to sleep. I found myself wondering how many times each day this might happen to the red panda, and, even, if it chose to fall for attention, or even to provide us with a more interesting floorshow. I remembered a young prairie wolf cub we’d watched at another animal park. It had a ball playing up to the cameras of excited onlookers. While its brothers and sisters hovered around the wooded area in the middle of their compound, surrounded by the shelter of undergrowth and their pack, one little wolf had decided that people were more fun. People would provide it with interest, so it would provide us with interest in return. It was the sweetest thing – the way it acted just like a domestic puppy, rushing round, doing zoomies, waiting for us, jumping off a branch and pretending to fall off.
The red panda fell again, and we soon grew bored. I hoped it had company in the shed at the back of its enclosure as I hated the through of it being alone. As I looked around, it became obvious that it could easily have roamed free throughout the zoo, and given there were no predatory creatures there, I reckoned it would be safe enough. But it chose to remain where it was, stumbling and getting back up to provide momentary amusement to passing humans. So, I guessed, partner or no partner, it was happy with its lot. I was glad of that.
The lack of a map (nobody had picked one up) meant that we were wandering erratically from one area to the other, and were unsure of what we’d encounter next. But when we turned the corner from the red panda, we moved into something that was clearly a different form of habitat altogether. There was nothing fencing the animals in and separating them from the human visitors. All we could see was a huge, grassy and muddy field, which surrounded a central large pool. Around the edges of the field were trees and hedges and huge beds of straw, but there were no creatures to be seen. Our first thought was that this was a bird area and that the birds were perhaps wildfowl or of the kind that spent certain hours of the day elsewhere off-site. We thought no more of it and prepared to follow the path to the next mystery area when suddenly we noticed something weird. It seemed that a creature was emerging from the pool, and it wasn’t large enough to be a hippo. Still, it was large enough, and bulky too, with a solid body and skinny legs. It must have been completely submerged till that point.
My heart almost burst with delight, and I said out loud. ‘Capybara, my favourite animal in the world. It’s a capybara.’ It was indeed a capybara, basically an enormous brown guinea pig. I immediately squatted down and held out my hands to this drenched yet still-muddy creature, which shook itself as soon as it was fully clear of the pond. I smiled encouragingly, and was so happy when I realised it noticed me. ‘Come here, cappy,’ I pleaded. But the magnificent capybara turned away from me with what looked like a shrug. I wanted to hug it. I wanted to take it home. But all the capybara wanted was to rest itself post-bathe in the hay strewn sunny corner of its field. I got up, feeling stupid, and the capybara sprinted away. Still, I’d seen one, and that was what mattered.
A moment of joy. A moment of sheer happiness that I’d encountered my favourite animal, in the flesh. And a moment of realisation that I would never mean the same to it, as it did to me.