It was a rainy day in June 2012, probably not the best time to visit the Zoo, but me and my boyfriend did it anyway. I dislike seeing captive animals, but I wanted to see some species which I haven’t had the chance to see before. This trip had happened before I started my Biology course and before I knew much about animal behavior or physiology, but I could not help feeling disgust at the sight of wild animals behind bars, fences or glass walls.
The Edinburgh Zoo opened for the first time in July 1913 and its 82 acres of green land shelter nearly 1000 species of animals, some of them tagged as highly endangered. But Edinburgh Zoo isn’t all about seeing the animals. It hosts educational programmes and activities, including talks with the keepers or contact with the animals (a practice I personally dislike – animals are most often seen as a source of entertainment and people rarely realize that animals do not enjoy being captive and being stared at).
So there we were, on Corstorphine Road in western Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. The rain didn’t seem to stop, but the air was refreshing after the gloomy atmosphere back in the hotel. The first thing we were supposed to see was the South American sea lion (genus Otaria). I was so excited that I finally get to see this amazing creature, but the experience wasn’t at all how I expected it to be. The animal kept swimming from one side of the pool to the other and it didn’t show up at all because it was probably stressed by the visitors around the small basin of water.
We moved further and saw the Chilean flamingos. The poor birds were standing still, their heads elegantly bowed in the pouring rain ignoring the passing visitors and their curious eyes. The ‘leave me alone‘ attitude of the flamingos and the cold rain made us walk towards the monkey alley. Bad luck. The monkey area was flooded thanks to serious rainfall.
We decided to go see the famous Giant Pandas, said to be the only ones in the entire United Kingdom at that moment. For seeing the Pandas there was a huge queue (only a limited number of people were allowed to visit the sanctuary at the same time, to avoid further stress on the famous Giant Pandas – oh, the irony), but the rain finally stopped and a bit of sunshine penetrated through the thick grey clouds. Somehow the rain made our experience at the zoo more wild and vivid, as if we became part of the animals’ daily life, not them of our lives. Luckily, both Giant Pandas, a male and a female, were awake when our group of visitors stopped behind the glass panel. The keepers tried to chill down the excited children and noisy teens but it was useless. The Pandas were kept separate and were brought together only occasionally for mating. To my surprise, the ‘Giant Pandas’ weren’t so large as I initially thought.
Later that day we decided to skip the hilltop safari tour. It started to rain again, slowly this time, and we wanted to experience by foot the sight of all the animals. We’ve seen baboons – lots of them, but what amused me most was the alpha male of the group. He loved to be petted by female subordinates and the expression of uttermost pleasure on its face was priceless. They seemed genuinely happy, compared to the rest of the animals in the Zoo. Other sights were a cute pregnant pygmy hippo, meerkats, wild boars, a jaguar, chimps, rhinos, etc.
Among the most notable birds were the Stanley cranes (also known as the Blue Crane – Anthropoides paradiseus), the national bird of South Africa. The beauty of their feathers was simply astonishing. Another animal we loved was the Koala which happened to be awake (given the fact that they sleep 23 hours per day, we were quite lucky)! On our walk we have also seen zebras and the nyala, a spiral-horned antelope native to southern Africa, painted hunting dogs, several birds of prey, llamas, the black stork, the giant anteater, the beautiful and playful sun bears (Helarctos malayanus), the cheeky brown Capuchin monkeys, Gentoo penguins, Darwin’s Rhea (a large flightless bird from South America) and others.
The saddest part of our visit was seeing the caged Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae), which is a critically endangered species. The habitat designed for this amazing rare predator was nice, but obviously too small. The animal developed cage madness and kept walking in circles for an extended period of time. This sight had saddened me and I began to feel guilty for what my fellow humans were doing. I remained alone behind the glass panel long after the rest of the visitors moved on, and in those moments I felt so powerless; all I could do was look at the captive tiger and hold back my tears. This is not how we should connect with nature and its marvels. The wild Sumatran tiger generally avoids areas with high human activity, yet it is perceived as dangerous and persecuted by the people who continuously tear down its habitat, particularly in South East Asia, where most people are unaware of the environment’s needs. It simply makes me so upset that this animal will eventually go extinct in order to allow people to multiply more, adding more stress to this burdened planet and its species. I just don’t think this is a worthy sacrifice, with the risk of sounding like a misanthrope, which I am not, but I consider humans and animals can live in perfect harmony without fatal consequences, if only we cared enough to do so.