© Flickr: Nigel Swales
Giles Coren finds hairy pigs and a message on a trip to the zoo.
For a long time my favourite place in London was the zoo. My earliest memories all come from there, and as a north Londoner by birth, dwelling and intended death, I have always been able to put a stop to any debate about which part of the city is best by holding up a hand and saying, ‘Sorry, pal, let me stop you there. We have elephants. We have rhino. We have FUCKING POLAR BEARS!’
Except, it turns out, we don’t. I went back there for the first time in years because I have a three-year-old daughter and it was time for her to see the great and terrible beasts of the wild in her own backyard. We queued, we paid seven hundred quid or whatever it is to get in, and we made straight for the elephant house (because one never forgets the way to an elephant house) and for the first time in her life Kitty was able to feast her tiny eyes on a real, live…
Yup, that’s what they have in the elephant house now. Pigs. Quite hairy ones. No elephants anywhere. Or rhino. And then I remembered that of course they don’t, they’ve been gone for years. Along with the bears and pretty much anything remotely exotic or terrifying. Which was why I had never bothered to go back until now. Because you can see pigs in Norfolk (it’s basically the only reason to go). You can see pigs at Kentish Town bloody farm. The close-up witnessing of an elephant having a crap (its arse dilates to the diameter of an oil drum and it hoons out what look like massive rusty tin cans) is a miracle that has stayed with me for 40 years, but which my children will never know.
So I took Kitty to the little petting area instead. Sheep and baby goats – woohoo. Then I took her to what looked like a giant bouncy castle in the shape of a caterpillar. It turned out to be the butterfly house. Thrilling. A place where you used to be able to see the ‘big five’ of the African safari is now a place for looking at midget livestock and insects.
And what larger animals they do have – gorillas, tigers – are not caged in convenient boxes any more but given huge spaces to roam around so that they are mostly hiding in the long grass and cannot be seen. So you have to make do with reading long notices about how these are basically the only three Sumatran tigers or western lowland gorillas left in the world because humans are such shitbags that we’ve killed them all to make them into ashtrays and headache remedies.
And I thought: Christ, what a depressing place the zoo has become compared to the glittering circus of my youth. But Kitty, bizarrely, loved it. Couldn’t get enough of the butterflies and the baby goats and the aquarium with its mock-ups of coral reefs and Amazon waters, not as they are but as they used to be, before we turned them to shit.
So I took out family membership and started to go every weekend (making it incredibly cheap, like a fiver a visit) and it slowly dawned on me that, no, the zoo is not depressing now. It was depressing then, with its piss-stained polar bears, suicidal pachyderms and chimpanzees wanking themselves senseless out of pure misery (we’ve all been there).
When it was built in the 1820s, with its beautiful colonial architecture and still-mythical beasts imprisoned for the entertainment of the pre-Victorians, London Zoo was pure imperialist propaganda, a vision of the African wilderness as it would be if we could only bring it under the British yoke. And we did. And we exploited it, and we killed every living thing we could in the name of either sport or progress, and we lied about it.
But now the zoo tells us the truth. That there aren’t many wild animals left. That if you want to see them you have to be very patient and look pretty hard. That colonialism was our tragedy not our triumph. And that now we have truly conquered the planet the only thing left to do is to set about saving it.
Cage rage? Tweet him @gilescoren.