monkey business: performing animals at the zoo?

I took my children to the zoo today. It was the school holidays. It seemed the sort of thing to do. I woke up to grey sky and drizzle which immediately dismissed my visions of wrapped-up winter picnics and replaced them with an image of my children trudging round the zoo in the rain and peering into empty – ‘the lion’s resting inside’ – animal enclosures clad in bright blue waterproofs in a fashion not dissimilar to my memories of visits to zoos in the Seventies.

I pack a bag of rolls, apples, crisps, raisins, waterproofs and hats. When I check the zoo website for directions, I’m interested to read that there is in fact a Signing Monkey Workshop running today.

As a child I found zoo visits the very epitome of tedium – right up there with circuses and Holiday on Ice (sorry Dad). It’s not that I didn’t – or don’t – like animals, but not even the fact that Uncle Nick was a zookeeper and fed the penguins could make up for the rustling blue waterproofs, aching feet, sub-standard packed lunches and endless sea of glum-looking primates.

However, it’s not the Seventies anymore and we’re in a bright new world of ‘zoo-ing’. Zoos these days are all about conservation, education and protection of endangered species rather than the making of a buck or two by degrading animals for our amusement.

Or so I’m trying to persuade myself as I walk my rustling blue-clad children past enclosure after enclosure of gloomy wet apes epically fed up with groups of eight year olds laughing at their bottoms. So this is new zoo-ing?

I ask my five year old for her take on things: “Do the orang-utans look happy or sad, darling?” “Sad.” “What about the gorilla?” “Sad.” “The chimpanzees?” “Sad.” I keep on with this until we reach a sign that says The apes are NOT sad. An ape ‘happy face’ has a turned down and relaxed mouth. An ape grins and bares its teeth when it is unhappy.

And thus corrected, we move on to the ‘Signing Monkey’ workshop.

Now I don’t know what you were imagining when you read this. I know what I was imagining. A monkey. A monkey doing sign language. Not a seasonal worker sweating buckets in an over-sized velour fancy-dress outfit.

I’m disappointed. Although after half an hour of raucous eight year olds heckling from the back I actually feel relieved. I wouldn’t put my worst enemy through that, let alone an already depressed (but in denial) primate.

After the workshop, we struggle back into our blue rain protection, with enough rustling to make a real monkey ‘grin’, and follow the eight year olds out of the overheated education centre to watch the three o’clock showing of (real) elephants playing football.

The queue is round the block. The otters, the pot-bellied pig and other non-sport playing animals eat their dinners in peace. Leaving me to wonder whether it’s not zoo-ing that needs to change but us.

Read last month's post: shopping trolley

Emma is a columnist and feature writer for Liberti Magazine.

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