SW Resident columnist and author Louise Candlish tells a funny tale about two trips to the zoo
A word of seasonal advice: no matter how wonderful your summer holiday this year, no matter how charming or exotic the destination, never let yourself be heard saying that another country does things better than we do. It will come back to bite you.
(Also, never work with animals.)
I have learned the hard way. Take two recent trips to the zoo. First Regent’s Park, London. It’s hard to park, boring to queue; bodies strain ten deep at anything remotely interesting and the animals pretty much sleep through the whole thing anyway. You’ve almost certainly just missed feeding time by five minutes and children refuse to leave tearlessly without one of those helium balloons that cost a fortune and soon fly off into the city smog.
Contrast, if you will, with La Palmyre in Charente-Maritime, Western France. It’s on the edge of a cool, scented forest, it’s easy to park and when you walk through the gates you find yourself immediately, somewhat startlingly, up close to moving, munching, skipping, interacting animals. Otters frolic charmingly at your feet; a baby giraffe approaches to say hello (in French, obviously, this is the only Eurovision country to still insist on giving the scores in its native tongue); llamas prance like showgirls as if they’ve been waiting all their lives to show you their routine; elephants play catch with pine cones, and so on and so forth.
It is all exactly as you imagine Europe’s first zoos to have been. None of that Health and Safety nonsense, just unobtrusive low walls around the animals, hardly enclosures at all. And it’s always feeding time at La Palmyre since you are permitted – nay encouraged – to post popcorn directly into the mouths of rhino.
‘Isn’t this marvellous!’ I exclaim. ‘Look how close we’re allowed to get! Makes you realise how rubbish our zoos are, doesn’t it? Have you ever seen creatures this animated?’
‘Maybe it’s like Italy,’ Andrew says, ‘where they give the animals speed to make sure they’re sufficiently entertaining to the public.’ (For the record, this is not true, or at least not as far as I know, but we did once see an Italian monkey smoking a cigarette).
‘I don’t know,’ I say, leaning against the wall and sipping a can of Coca Light. ‘They’re so hilarious. Oh, remember when Johnny Lydon got pecked by one in “I’m a Celebrity”?’
‘Possibly that’s why people don’t like them. They’re vicious b*stards.’
On cue, I am assaulted violently from the right. Turning, shrieking, I look straight down the dark-pink throat of a real-life angry bird. ‘That thing just bit me!’ I yell, as parents steer their children from the edge (from the ostriches or the mad yelling Englishwoman, who knows). ‘Andrew, did you just see that? I was attacked in broad daylight by an ostrich!’
‘Oh dear,’ he laughs. ‘This is what happens when you allow people to feed toffee popcorn to wild animals.’
‘What, they decide they want a human arm as well?’
‘It wanted your Coke. It thinks everything we have in our hands is fair game. It doesn’t know the subtle hierarchies of snacking.’
‘Well, I’d like to see an ostrich try drinking from a can.’ I rub my arm and check for peck marks. ‘You know, I’m not at all sure about this zoo. I don’t think it cares enough about the welfare of its visitors.’
‘I thought you said you liked the no-health-and-safety vibe?’
‘I’ve changed my mind. I prefer the health-and-safety-gone-mad approach we have in the UK. I’d rather not see any animals and leave the premises intact.’
‘Well, we’re almost done,’ he says, consolingly. ‘Only the completely-open-on-all sides “Ape Space” to go. Where’s the bag of popcorn, Lou?’
‘Finished,’ I tell him. ‘I fed it to the lions.’
Louise’s novel ‘The Disappearance of Emily Marr’ is out now