Since the onset of my blog (still none the wiser as to what a ‘blog’ actually is and surely whoever named it could have chosen a more attractive word), I have intended to write about a subject very close to my heart; trouble is, I have been avoiding it for that very reason – it is so important to me.
As a little girl, I was taken to see ‘Born Free‘, at the local cinema, in 1966 and I shall never forget walking back up the road in floods of tears. The true story of Elsa, the lioness, and the Adamsons’ struggle to return her to the wild and ensure her freedom, the film had a huge impact on me and, to this day, is an integral part of me. Dramatic as it may sound, it, actually, shaped much of my outlook on life and mankind. The relationship between human beings and animals – and what one can learn from said relationship – should never be underestimated. A compassion for animals demonstrates a warmth and humility so very lacking in the world today – and so badly needed.
I was 6 years old – perhaps 7, by then – but my parents had a copy of the book, ‘Born Free‘, which I quickly devoured before going on to read the sequels, ‘Living Free‘ and ‘Forever Free‘ – Becca and Manny remain disbelieving that I was reading such adult books at this age! Fact. I became obsessed with Africa and the Adamsons and amassed a wonderful collection of hardback books I have to this day. For me, however, Virginia Mckenna, who played Joy Adamson in the film, was Joy Adamson and she was my heroine – those who know me also know that she remains so! Her husband, Bill Travers, playing George Adamson, was a worthy hero and it was his subsequent documentary, ‘The Lions are Free‘, which sealed my attitude to zoos forever. In a way, it is a sequel to the making of ‘Born Free‘. Virginia, Bill and George fought desperately to secure the futures of the lions used in the film and to prevent them, ironically, being sent off to zoos. Sadly, they were only able to save 3 – Boy, Girl and Ugas – and George took them to Meru, set up camp, and embarked on a journey similar to that he had taken with Elsa. ‘The Lions are Free‘ follows that journey. It is the most moving film full of incredible footage depicting an unbreakable bond between human and animal. Trust, humility and compassion …
I drove past Edinburgh Zoo on Monday. It is Half-Term. There was a queue to get in. My heart sank. I decided to make ‘Zoos’ my next blog.
Almost 14 years ago, in ‘The Sunday Times‘ dated 8th June, 2003, there was an article in defence of zoos. The Booker Prize-winning author of ‘Life of Pi‘, Yann Martel, had been invited to open the new tiger enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo and, in front of an eclectic audience in the Education Centre, he read from a particular chapter in his book in which his protagonist, Pi, argues in favour of wildlife being kept behind bars. Infuriated, I burst into print – as Pop would say – and fired off a letter to said newspaper! I found it, tonight, along with the reply stating it was being considered for publication. Sadly, it never was – and, in hindsight, I understand why – but, if I can work out how to scan my letter and attach it, please read it. Fourteen years on, it still hits home.
Of course, it was not possible to scan my letter and attach it. Who was I trying to kid?! Scanned and saved to desktop, the document is black. Forgive my simplicity but, if I save a document, is it too much to ask that one can read it? Give me a quill and parchment any day.
So, the upshot is that I shall have to type it out myself … and I will! Here is an abridged version;
‘Happiness is a human construct‘.
The arrogance of man never ceases to amaze me; depress me.
When I started to read Yann Martel’s pro-zoo argument, I assumed it was an ironic, thought-provoking exercise – with disbelief, I realised this was not so.
Martel argues that those failing to appreciate seeing a wild animal ‘behind bars‘ are missing the point: ‘ … they’re not looking at a human being. They’re looking at an animal.’ Sadly, the crux of the matter is that man believes himself to be superior. Those such as Martel do not credit animals with emotions, feelings, with memory and this, undoubtedly, must ease the guilt invoked when looking at the lone lioness sitting, forever, on that rock in Edinburgh Zoo; or the lone polar bear swimming, incessantly, up and down its small channel of murky water; the rhino, in the middle of winter, staring into space in its concrete, mud-filled enclosure; or the magnificent giraffes confined for life in a patch of ground devoid of any plant life – one cannot count the few dead branches stuck, in a holder on the wall , or the drawings/paintings of trees to make their ‘prison’ more bearable …
What can one learn about these animals taken from their natural habitat? Animals which – many of whom – cover vast distances, daily, in their search for food and water and, for whom social interaction is as vital as it is to any human being.
Martel argues, ‘If we close all zoos down who would ever see an elephant? … Your average Glaswegian kid would never see an elephant.’ Funnily enough, your average elephant would never see a Glaswegian kid, either but, somehow, I don’t think he would expect to!
What gives us the right to assume superiority? What gives us the right to imprison a wild animal for life for our entertainment? The answer is that we do not have the right. There can be no pleasure gained from looking into the eyes of a mountain gorilla behind bars or glass, reduced to nothing more than an exhibit. Certainly, man assumes the dominant position, here, but to see a wild animal such as this in its rightful habitat affords a very different experience – one which is incredibly humbling. In an ideal world, everyone would have the chance to see these animals in the wild; in an ideal world, humility would, once more, be part of the human make-up. Sadly, it’s far from an ideal world but surely, in striving towards it, Martel’s ‘moral compromise of enclosing animals‘ is not worth it! In a recent article in ‘Travel Africa‘, there is a moving description of someone’s encounter with a male silverback gorilla. She points out that he is ‘built like a killer‘ yet all she reads in his eyes is trust; no hostility. As she says, ‘What a shame mankind continued to evolve.’
(Hilary Bradt, ‘Travel Africa‘, Summer 2003)
So, there you have it. Condemnation in the extreme … but most definitely justified.
Zoo Check, founded in 1984 by Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, and, subsequently, The Born Free Foundation is part of my being. I wrote a letter to Virginia in 1989 explaining my devotion to the cause instilled in me by that special film. Little did I expect a personal reply but that is exactly what I got and the heroine of that six year-old girl became her lifelong friend and, truth be told, very much a surrogate mother. I am so very lucky.
I fulfilled a lifelong dream, in 2000, and travelled to Kenya with Virginia and 11 others courtesy of The Born Free Foundation. It was a safari in memory of George and Joy Adamson and we re-lived the story culminating in a visit to Elsa’s grave in Meru. Here, Virginia offered to take a photograph of me … that memory will forever make me smile.
Africa is magical. These animals that, in 2017, some humans still see fit to confine to a life of misery behind bars under the ridiculous guise of conservation and education are magical … in their natural habitat. The thing is, they are only imprisoned for our entertainment; to make money and there is certainly no magic in their lives. Look into their eyes and you will see. There is no hatred just sadness.
In 2005, I spent many an hour at Edinburgh Zoo filming Mercedes, the last captive polar bear in the UK, to strengthen The Born Free Foundation‘s argument that there must be no more subjected to her fate. I can honestly say that, in all the hours, she hardly moved except at ‘meal time’ when she received the contents of a bucket thrown on the ground – cakes, dead birds, carrots … exactly what a polar bear would eat in the wild and certainly very educational for those watching! It was heartbreaking to see a magnificent wild creature reduced to that. She seemed accepting of her fate, all fight gone. Taken from Manitoba, Canada as a cub, all these years ago, she had known nothing else other than this concrete prison. Her companion had died – choking on a toy thrown into the enclosure by a member of the public, I believe – a long time ago and, since then, she had been completely alone. No wonder, then, that she just lay there sleeping or feigning sleep. No reason to live. I hated it all but the worst part was when she looked at me; when our eyes met. I didn’t want her to see me or to think that I condoned her misery or was responsible. Instead, I wanted her to know that I was ashamed of those that did.
Zoos justify their existence under the guise of conservation and education. Conservation? To what end? To protect endangered species with a view to returning them to the wild? Don’t be silly! To protect them by taking them from their natural habitat and, effectively, confining them to life imprisonment so that we, the ‘superior’ race, can gawp at them at great cost … Great cost? No greater. Freedom.
Education? Well, I already explained how much there was to learn from watching Mercedes being fed the contents of her bucket! Then there is the giraffes who are lucky to have foliage drawn on the walls of their concrete enclosures and even bunches of real twigs strategically placed. Talking about the diet of these wild animals, I remember being at the Education Centre of Edinburgh Zoo on a school trip with Manny, I think – many years ago – when we were told about some of the things they were given to eat. It was certainly an education for me. Hard boiled eggs! Seriously?
Full circle to whence we came in and all these people queueing to pay Edinburgh Zoo a fortune in the name of conservation. Can you imagine if, instead, all that money went to protecting these poor creatures in the wild so that future generations could see and learn from them in their natural habitat. Only the privileged few could afford to go to Africa? Maybe. Maybe not. Sadly, given the choice of a safari in Africa or lying on a sun lounger in Lanzarote, I think most of those queueing would choose the latter.
I give up. You will understand why, for so long, I chose not to write about zoos! I hope I have made some sense and some are still with me.
Before I sign off, please go the The Born Free Foundation website. Click on the ‘Beyond the Bars’ appeal and this will take you to a video. Please watch it.
‘We could learn as much about lions by studying them in their cages as we can about men by studying them in their prison cells.’
Virginia Mckenna, ‘The Lions are Free’ – magnificent documentary courtesy of Bill Travers
This is Trish, signing off.