On a recent visit to Antwerp, we managed to drain our glasses, rise from the comfort of a café and go to the zoo. I always like to visit a zoo on a city-break. An art gallery or two, a cathedral or castle, a museum, a botanical garden and a zoo. It is what I do. The entrance fee was pricey at €22 each but the entry staff eventually managed to prise the cash from my clenched, whitened fist. The place was teeming with keepers, caring for the healthy and (mostly) content-looking animals, so I didn’t really resent the cost. Besides we were there for 4 ½ hours!
Here’s a little of what we saw:
A Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), mesmerised by the wind blowing in the trees (and a dead mouse in its talons). In the wild its distribution is circumpolar – a fact which I’m sharing with you just so that I can use that word. Circumpolar, circumpolar, circumpolar.
Nearby a Great Grey Owl (Strix nebulosa), looked me in the eye, weighed my intellect … and found it wanting. Captive GGOs can live to the good-ish age of forty – but much less in the wild. And I might add that their distribution is also circumpolar. Circumpolar, circumpolar, circumpolar.
Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) feed on small organisms filtered through their bills; it is shrimp-like crustacea that cause such a preposterous, outrageous pink. Zoos add a colour-enhancing supplement to their food.
The lions (Panthera leo) were dozing in the sun. No real surprise that it is the …
… females who do most of the hunting. Up until the 1940′s there were still lions in the Atlas mountains of Morocco. Now, except for a small, isolated pocket of the Asiatic sub-species in India, all wild lions live in sub-Saharan Africa.
This tiger (Panthera tigris) shows that, unlike other species of cat, it is perfectly happy in water. Tigers are, of course, an endangered species and are now extinct in: Afghanistan; Iran; Kazakhstan; Kyrgyzstan; Pakistan; Singapore; Tajikistan; Turkey; Turkmenistan; Uzbekistan and probably, North Korea. They have lost 93% of their historic range.
The Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) is critically endangered. The total wild population is between 30 – 40.
The Plains Zebra (Equus burchelli – the most numerous of the three species) are prey to both lions and hyenas; a lousy place to sit in the food chain.
At a zoo you can smell the animals and, I have to say, I do like the smell of an elephant. I’m the first to admit that it isn’t ideal to keep such a huge, majesty in a confined concrete enclosure. But if children can get up close and personal to an asian elephant, is it a price worth paying to keep some in captivity? (Elephants in captivity, that is – not children. Although … thinking about it ….. ?). Anyway. The kids (of which there were dayglo-droves, as far as the eye could see) will hopefully form a lifelong affection for elephants. As a four-year old at Berlin zoo, I certainly did.
Interesting elephant fact? They are the only mammal that can’t jump! Another one? Having no thumbs, baby elephants suck their trunks.
Like zebras, no two giraffe’s coats are the same. Interesting giraffe fact? They have the longest tail of any land mammal – up to 8ft.
The hippo (Hippopotamus amphibius) has an unsavoury habit – which we observed with grimaced distaste. While defecating, it rapidly flaps its paddle-like tail to spread its excrement over a wider area. I didn’t bother taking a photo.
Hippos are very aggressive – especially when they have young. Do NOT place yourself between a mother hippo and her baby. Actually, it doesn’t much matter; hippos will attack humans without any provocation.
They are commonly considered the most dangerous animal in Africa.
Far less dangerous, and previously unknown to me, were these South American Coati (Nasua nasua). These two were particularly absorbed by a restaurant review in my copy of The Guardian.
I was equally fond of these Javan Langurs (Trachypithecus auratus). The orange coloured one is a naturally occurring form. The main threat to this species is habitat loss; the burning and clearance of forest for timber and agriculture.
Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) are always fascinating to watch.
As we share 98.8% of our DNA, there is much to recognize. Interesting chimpanzee info? I overheard what they were whispering about; but it was kind of private.
Western Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) are also close relations of ours. They share just under 98% of our genes. That missing 2% must include the swimming gene. They can’t.
How can anyone believe that we are not related? He looks far more human than many humans I’ve met … or dated.
The word Meerkat comes from the Afrikaans meaning marsh cat. Meerkats (Suricata suricatta) don’t live in or near marshes and they aren’t cats. Badly named as they are, they are NOT endangered. Yay!
Through thick plate-glass (too dark for photos), we watched underwater Grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) cavorting at great speed and agility; wreathed in curtains of silver bubbles and obviously playing. Just playing. A boy, his face lit up, turned and looked up at Jim with a huge grin and said, “Wow.” (Flemish for “wow”).
If zoos can excite and engage young children and instill in them a love for and appreciation of the wild wonder of the world then perhaps, just maybe, the next generation will make a better job of preserving it than we have. I have to hope so – as there seems little chance otherwise of saving that which is endangered. Certainly the obfuscating talks at the 2012 Earth Summit in Rio, seemed more concerned with preserving the profits of corporations and maintaining unfettered, infinite economic growth, than with preserving the habitats of the Javan Langur or the Amur Leopard.
While we would all want zoo animals released ‘out there‘ into the wild (and not in glass and metal cages), in so many instances ‘out there‘ is where they become bush-meat; or trinkets; or rugs and wall-hangings; or spurious drugs; or trophies to idiocy. Until that is no longer the case, zoos must continue their breeding programmes and maintain gene pools and teach the young (and the old) how very precious and irreplaceable our co-habitants of this planet are.