(captivated visitors at Edinburgh Zoo)

I am ambivalent about zoos. I imagine I feel the same way as many people: I love looking at animals, but I have an innate dislike of seeing them in captivity. The only zoo I have visited as an adult was the biodome in Montreal, about five years ago. I remember thinking that the idea of re-creating and encountering several different ecosystems was really quite appealing, but I found the reality deeply upsetting — all those poor beasties stuck indoors! I also remember being very angry — at myself, for being so easily drawn in by what was essentially a marketing concept for a rather bad zoo, as well as at the biodome, for having the gall to give their big glass cage an educational, conservationist, and environmental gloss.

Some zoos, though, can legitimately claim that conservation and research are central to their business, and Edinburgh Zoo is one of these. We had visitors this weekend, and I went there with them for the first time. I was impressed by the size and careful design of the site itself, which extends for several acres up the side of Corstorphine Hill. I was also impressed by the seriousness of the zoo’s various conservation and species-protection projects, and by the straightforward way they put this at the heart of their self-presentation. I was disturbed by a few things: carnivores in old-fashioned menagerie-style enclosures, for example, and the spectacle of the captive polar bear was deeply melancholy. But if the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s ambitious reorganisation plans come to fruition, perhaps these outmoded and troubling zoo-elements will soon be gone.

Anyway, I’m only mentioning my (still-existing) zoo-worries because I wanted to show you some pictures. I am not in the least a spiritual person, but I found this rhino a wondrous and near-spiritual sort of presence.

(rhino phiz)

did you know their arses looked like this? The rhino-skin’s different textures, with its armoured plates and folds, is truly amazing.

(rhino arse)

I find the back-ends of beasties strangely fascinating — perhaps it is the way they de-familiarise familiar animals. Or perhaps I just like arses.

(zebra arse)

. . .and you just can’t be sniffy about the famous penguin parade. (This, as the keepers kept reminding us, is entirely voluntary: the gate of the enclosure is opened at a set time each day and, if the penguins fancy it, they shuffle on out for a wee walk. Sometimes they don’t, and there is no ‘parade’).

The proudly parading emperors were impressive:

But this wee gentoo penguin, tramping through the autumn leaves, was my favourite . . .

I think she or he is cannily plotting something. What do you reckon?