A Visit to the Edinburgh Zoo

Edinburgh Zoo

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 ironyGiant Panda), 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 Stanley craneCrane – 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 Sumatran tigermy 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.

Why I Love Scotland

Truthfully I have never known much about Scotland before I visited it for the first time, except that Edinburgh, its lovely capital, is famous for its grizzly history and that J.K. Rowling, writer of the Harry Potter series, lived there. When I first landed in Edinburgh, my first thought was how absolutely green everything was, even though it was a gloomy winter morning. The air was cold and refreshing and for the first time in my life I felt I stepped in into a place where the past perfectly entwined with the present in a most beautiful way. Every day I learned more and more about its history and places so unique surrounded by mostly uninhabited wilderness.


On a beach in Nairn, Scotland

In a society such as ours, dominated by technology and a fast-paced living, places like Scotland are rare gemstones, especially in the Western Highlands, where even the small coastal towns seem to re-live the distant past when darkness falls. The woodlands of Scotland have an eerie feeling about them when grey tridimensional clouds seem to cover them from all sides. I don’t think Scottish people realize how beautiful clouds are to foreigners in Scotland, but for someone like me, who comes from a place where in winter clouds form a uniform, homogenous vault and in summer the heat makes the sky seem milky white and light blue, the sights this northern country has to offer are almost surreal.

Of course, my imagination may be aroused by the fact that I have read a great deal about the history of Scotland, some of Robert Luis Stevenson’s books and almost everything I could get my hands on about the history of Edinburgh. It is indeed a place where imagination is easily summoned with such cultural richness and diversity of buildings or monuments with a profound historical background.

There’s so much to love about Scotland and especially for being different from the rest of Europe, including England, which has lost its essence in the battle against the myriad of different cultures that call it home. From my point of view, the ideal world is close to what northern and western Scotland is like – wild and thriving, where the environment is undisturbed by the tumultuous cities of the east. One other significant thing that makes this country special is its nearly 12 000 km long coastline which, for a future marine biologist, is a very precious thing. The temperate climate of the country, quite close to the Arctic circle, allows quite a few species to grow abundantly, compared to the tropics and subtropics, known for their diversity of species.

I always feel the need to go back to places like St. Andrews, Edinburgh or the Isle of Skye, but it’s the sea that essentially draws me in and adds up to the beauty of this country. From Edinburgh to Dundee the coast is predominantly sandy and the occasional haar (coastal fog) sometimes seems to swallow it up, yet from Dundee to Aberdeen the coast is dominated by high, steep rocks that can serve as screens into the deep geological past.


In Elgol on the Isle of Skye

All in all, both inland and in coastal areas, seasoned with its gorgeous history and culture, the beauty of Scotland is undisputed and this is the true reason why I hold it dear. I have always appreciated things that are different, things that inspire me and places that are so unique that with time they have the potential to become bedrocks for one’s personality if they allow this ancient land to shape them as the seas have done with Scotland’s coastline for millions of years and will continue to do so long after its history will be forgotten.

On Religious Scientists and Other Things

As a biologist I sometimes find myself pathetically content to meet one or two other fellow biologists to discuss evolution with. In my country, according to a poll conducted by Eurobarometer in 2010, a staggering majority of 92% “believe there is a God”, 7% “believe there is some sort of spirit or life force” and a pitiful 1% doesn’t “believe there is any sort of spirit, God or life force”. The percentages drop considerably as we move towards western Europe, especially in the Scandinavian countries. As it happens, levels of literacy are correlated with high percentages of religious belief, but this is quite misleading and there are several exceptions (e.g. Lithuania – 99.7% literate people and 47% believe in God, according to the Eurobarometer poll). Indeed, poverty and social status have a lot to say regarding a person’s beliefs and so is their educational background, but what about the highly educated believers in God and evolution deniers?

What strikes me most is to find myself surrounded by biologists who share the belief that God created human beings, other animals, plants, and every element that makes up the world. These are people of many contradictions. This isn’t a problem I am facing only in my science course, but everywhere around me. Grand churches bloom like mushrooms after the rain everywhere around the country – the latter I find easier to swallow. While churches are tax-exempted, as much as 67 hospitals had been closed down in 2011 because of a lack of funds from a government that strangely funded many rising churches, including the abomination whose construction will be finished by the end of 2016 – a giant church worth around 500 million euros planted in the middle of the country’s capital. This unnecessary building was stupidly named “Romanian People’s Salvation Cathedral”. They utterly forget not every taxpayer is a religious person and that 1% of non-believers had their contribution to the state poured into that church. Shouldn’t the taxpayer money be used for the betterment of infrastructure, public services and such? Who needs half a billion euro church? Is your faith really measured by gold and riches?

For a long time the younger generations in Romania battled with the old ones, especially after 1989, the year of the Revolution, but the conflict is still there and will persist for a long time. Some of my professors are older and some are younger, but there’s a percentage of God believers in both categories, which is an alarming truth. How can a creationist-scientist hybrid inspire future scientists? To be clear, no professor in my course ever mentioned God created the world, but there are small details which give them away. I’m observer of the people around me and my professors are no exception. I was pleasantly surprised to discover there were professors in my course who supported facts and not beliefs, but most of them didn’t talk very much about the fact that creationism is merely a story people tell themselves to feel less alone in this big, bad world. No wonder they chose to be neutral given the proportion of believers in my Biology course, a staggering percentage of 40%.

People like Sir David Attenborough, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, physicist Lawrence Krauss, naturalist Charles Darwin, Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Hawking, Edward O. Wilson, and many other notable scientists, have denied the existence of God. I am inspired by their lives and their work, especially Charles Darwin’s, who despite living in a deeply religious society and despite his beloved Christian wife, found the courage to publish his masterpiece On the Origin of Species in 1859. He, as many other scientists, thought the world would wake up eventually and accept evolution as a fact, yet nowadays, most of the population on the globe believes otherwise – the world was created by a supernatural being.

I am constantly wondering why do more and more people need to believe in a god, why do they prefer a story instead of evidence and logic? Much of Darwin’s book was edited and re-edited since its publication and some parts have lost their original meaning. And that happened in only 155 years! Same can be told about the Bible, which was written two millennia ago by various people and has known many revisions. Also, much of its meaning was lost during the translation of the manuscript, yet some people believe it literally.

It’s becoming harder and harder to live in a world that despite all the discoveries and technological insurgence, still clings to ancient fairytales told to each generation to ensure the brainwashing of those who someday might have the power to influence the future generations as others did before them. My parents have never been the religious type and I am most grateful for that because I had the liberty to choose myself what I believe in and this is a practice professor Richard Dawkins encourages most fervently. For a while my grand-grandmother, a devout Catholic, tried to show me what religion had to offer, yet to me they were all stories and I never believed them to have happened – I never thought Red Riding Hood existed so why should I believe that the biblical stories are real?

At school, during elementary and high-school we were forced to study religion (not a history of religions, but orthodoxy, which is the major religion in Romania). It never made sense to me and during high-school I ardently hated it. The young brainwashed professor who was teaching us the great wisdom of the orthodox religion was more on the insane side. She gave us DVDs with live abortions and told us any contraceptive method is a crime against the mighty God. How can a professor tell that to a thriving bunch of 17-year-olds? Anyway, I was most gladly when I moved towards higher education where studying religion wasn’t part of the curriculum.

I don’t hold any grudge against religious people, some are very good friends of mine and I respect them for their personalities, but I can’t agree with them on the matter of religion. It imposes many limitations on what a person can achieve and given we all have only one life to live, it is such a pity to let all the wonders of the universe go undiscovered or ignored. I love understanding the processes that put into motion the world around us, I love the accumulating knowledge and I can’t nor want to experience its absence. If you do believe God said “and let there be light” why don’t you believe he might have referred to your mind too? Why else would we need a brain if not for thinking? The basic functions of the animal body don’t need such a complex structure to back them up. Think about it.

Stock photo

The Jacobite Express

On a cloudy summer day me and my boyfriend went for a legendary railway trip, said to be one of the best in the whole world: The Jacobite Express, under the lead of the West Coast Railways in Scotland. The 84 mile round journey started in Fort William, the largest town in the Highlands, shadowed by the mighty Ben Nevis, Britain’s tallest mountain. This usually is the point where tourists and other British start an exciting quest: the discovery of the Western Highlands, which has an untamed beauty no other part of the country can compete with. On top of all that it beckons the curious, adventurous eyes, promising to offer the experience of a lifetime to every wanderer into the cold wilderness of Scotland’s bare hills and mountains.

near Mallaig

Somewhere near Mallaig, western Highlands. Into the distance there are the islands of Eigg and Rum

Fort William was windy and unforgiving, the chill penetrating to the bones, but it wasn’t as harsh as the winter blasts back home in Eastern Europe, which are Siberian-like and deathly. Our ride wasn’t a surprise, for I have seen the actual train on the company’s website: a steam engine train, with a wonderful old-style locomotive, which reminded of the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies. But this wasn’t a coincidence. The route itself is via the 21-arched Glenfinnan viaduct, the very one that we have seen in the movie, which overlooks the wonderful Loch Shiel (the lake that’s part of the Hogwarts’ grounds, except in reality there is no castle in sight). When the train reaches the viaduct, it slows down or even stops, allowing travellers to take photos. On that particular day, it happened that a man was climbed up into a tree to get a better view of the fantastic train that graciously let its smoky tail wave the viaduct goodbye.

Soon after the happy encounter, we arrived at Glenfinnan station where we took some fresh air and the train got a well-deserved break. It performed wonderfully so far. This train station wasn’t large, yet it sheltered a small historical museum and a little farther a restaurant sheltered inside a retired train wagon, whose location was complemented by a heavenly green valley, with puffy white clouds descending over it.

The train advances further into the western wilderness, passing by Loch Morar, which is the deepest freshwater lake in Great Britain and also Loch Nevis, Europe’s deepest seawater lake. By now, the thick navy blue clouds have covered the sky, promising something you can never really miss on the British Islands: rain. But as soon as we arrived in Mallaig, our final destination, the strong winds broke into pieces the giant dark cloud above. Mallaig is a small port, with ferry services to the Isle of Skye and the Small Isles (Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna) – part of the Inner Hebrides, offering a variety of scenery and wildlife. Basically the whole port smelled like fish and other seafood, especially on the docks. Of course, we went for lunch in one small restaurant on a street that might be the port’s High Street, which overlooked the multitude of ships resting before they confronted the angry sea. The food was good, yet the quantity was monstrous, as it generally is in restaurants on the Islands, at least from my point of view. We stayed in Mallaig for one hour and a half and just when we returned to ride back to Fort William, the promised rainfall poured over the land.

On our way back we crossed the Glenfinnan viaduct again, but the excitement was considerably lower. I am still wondering if I liked it because of the scenery or because of its connection to the Harry Potter movies. I guess it is the latter, for I felt really excited to travel the same route as the famous wizard.


The Glenfinnan viaduct, Loch Shiel and the Jacobite Monument

In no time we were back in Fort William, waiting for the bus that would take us to Inverness, the capital of the Highlands. Meanwhile, we rested by Loch Linnhe, which is 50 kilometres long! That makes it Scotland’s longest sea loch. On summer days, Loch Linnhe is perpendicular with the setting sun, therefore it is a favorite location for photographers. We walked along the High Street and went for a cup of tea in one small coffee shop that was about to close. The warmth of the place was a blessing compared to the furious winds outside.

It had been a long day, having traveled by car, by bus and by train, to get to one of the most representative locations in the western Highlands. The seagulls signaled the coming of darkness, which on Scottish summer days is never really the darkness you would imagine, but a soft mix of shadowy blue, adorned with frozen stars. And what makes Scotland unique among all other places, is that on such nights, when the cities are asleep, if you close your eyes and listen carefully, you can feel as if you are a million miles away from any civilization. Just before dusk we were headed to the bus station, waving goodbye to both Fort William and to a day I will remember for the rest of my life, for it was the day I turned 22.