Ever since I was a small child, the zoo has always held a particular fascination for me. Some of my earliest memories are of watching the chimpanzee’s tea parties and riding high atop the elephant at the London Zoo. Of course that was back in the days when it was also still permissible to feed the animals, which although extremely bad for the animals, as we now know, was so much fun for us kids. How gleefully we hurled, in our youthful innocence, sticky buns and bananas at the bears and monkeys who in turn rewarded such welcome if misguided largesse with the most entertaining antics.
It was at Whipsnade Zoo that my first attempt at zoo photography resulted in the understandably blurred snapshot of a rather large, escaped tapir (I say understandably since I was running to get out of its way at the time) as it charged about in an ecstasy of unexpected if short-lived freedom; an instance that leads me to make this observation. Taking reasonably acceptable pictures of animals in captivity is not as easy as one would imagine. And I’m not just talking about trying to avoid making the bars of the cage the focal point of the image.
Go to the zoo in summer when it’s ninety degrees and every living thing is sprawled supine in the one patch of shade that is usually furthest away from public gaze, and it’s hardly surprising that the only response to your entreaties to “Come on! Shake a leg!” is a disdainful look that plainly says “You must be joking.”
Undaunted, you come to an enclosure that at first glance appears to be empty. All those assembled on the safe side of the railings are busily scanning the scene for any sign of life. Then some bright spark in the crowd points to an indeterminate mass half hidden behind a parched shrub. “There it is!” he cries with all the certainty and enthusiasm of Columbus discovering the New World. You brace yourself and the camera and stand ready for action. After ten minutes of absolutely zero activity you confidently tell yourself that patience is a virtue as everyone drifts off, leaving you to maintain a lonely vigil, and it isn’t until half an hour later that you realize you’ve been waiting to take pictures of a minor species of boulder, and slink away in search of more interesting subjects.
The next hour is spent following a peacock around in the hopes that it will favor you with a dazzling display of feathers. It looks at you occasionally, over its shoulder, to make sure you’re keeping up, and every once in a while it stops and taunts you by giving its tail a promising shake as though it’s about to perform something spectacular, then smirks and struts away.
The only things that seem to be available for shooting (and I do mean with the camera) are the ground-squirrels that run about in abundance. They pop up indiscriminately in pens reserved for zebra, camel, wildebeest and gnu, think nothing of dashing underneath the very nose of that king of beasts, the lion, as it snoozes on its rocky throne, and play quite happily within swiping distance of the grizzly bear’s enormous claws. Admittedly they are fascinating little creatures but you can see them in your back garden any day of the week. You’re here for bigger game and so you press on.
One of the few places where the exhibits actually come to you and if you’re lucky, perch on your shoulder, is the butterfly enclosure at Brookfield Zoo. What is not so comforting, however, is having a giant fruit-eating bat sail past your ear in the African Nocturnal Creatures exhibit. It’s a funny thing, but you never know how loud you can scream until the right moment presents itself.
It’s just possible, of course, that you might find yourself in the right place at the right time such as when the tiger is kicking up a fuss because his lunch hasn’t arrived on schedule or the polar bear is taking an afternoon dip in the pool, in which case, be ready! In my experience, these events are few and far between. There have been days when I’ve taken more pictures of the paying public than the inmates.
Naturally, there are those who will tell you, “When you’ve seen one kangaroo, giraffe or hippopotamus, you’ve seen ‘em all,” and I have to admit, it’s a sentiment with which I’m beginning to agree. It would seem that David Attenborough and others have introduced us, via the magic of TV, to every single living species on Earth and there’s very little left to surprise us. That’s why I’m really hoping they discover life on another planet sometime in the near future.
Admit it. Wouldn’t it make a welcome change to be able to go to the zoo and take pictures of a two-headed, pink and green spotted pipswiffler, or get some close-up shots of a purple, three legged grinflarp hopping about. The possibilities are enough to make the imagination boggle.
Till then, I suppose, we’ll have to make do with what we’ve got. After all, it’s not every day that you get to see a pair of giant tortoises mating or a panda nonchalantly chomping on a bamboo shoot; but I, for one, will be wildly cheering when the next deep space probe leaves the launching pad. Now……where’s that three-toed sloth when you need it?