Monday, October 22, 2007

London Journey: Part Fifteen

October 10, 2007 The London Zoo & Regent’s Park

Walking through Regent’s Park, it is easy to see where Disney must have gotten ideas for the landscaping around Cinderella’s Castle; for the Magic Kingdom is, in many places, simply an idealized version of the United Kingdom (just as in other places, it is an idealized version of the Good Ole U.S.of A.)

Narrow streets lined with wrought iron fences climb over gently arching bridges which span narrow streams. Willows and other trees lean into the scene, and small lakes with tiny islands lay ready to be explored.

Regent’s Park is named, if I remember correctly, for the son of King George the Third. In 1810, the Prince of Wales was created Prince Regent upon the occasion of his father’s decent into madness. The extravagant prince spent great sums of money on art and architecture- it drove the politicians of the day insane, but London of today has a lot to thank him for.

While this park is fit for a prince, and in places seems incredibly formal to American eyes, it is worth noting that, in his London: A Short History, A.N. Wilson writes:
The London parks in the nineteenth century reflected the dawnings of democracy. As more and more people crowded into the metropolis, they felt ever more keenly the need for the “lungs” provided by the parks. As well as places to stroll, or hear music, the London Parks become the people’s gardens.

Perhaps that is part of, maybe the greatest part of, the unconscious genius of England…that, unlike other nations, where beauty fit for princes was torn from royal grasp by violent and bloody revolutions, leaving great rifts in the fabric of history and society, the slow and stately progression English history allowed these parks to become the shared natural property of both the people AND their monarchs…their joint birthright, rather than the spoils of war.

It is in the northeast corner of Regent’s Park that one finds the London Zoo. Founded originally by the London Zoological Society in the early 1800s, this zoo was one of the first in the world whose mission was the study of animal life, rather than the mere exhibition of it. As time has gone on, the zoo has modified its mission from one of study to one of study and conservation, and it has continually renewed itself.

One of the first areas we entered was the Reptile House. And yes, it does look familiar: this is where young Harry Potter first learned he could talk to snakes, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone (better known here by it’s original British title: the Philosopher’s Stone). Inside the house is a picture of young Daniel Radcliff and the Python to commemorate the fact.

In Harry Potter, both Dudley and Uncle Vernon bang on the glass in a vain attempt to make the Giant Python move…but Bobbi and I had no such problems….the very first specimen we came upon was the deadly black mamba. (He’s green, actually, but the inside of his mouth is, apparently, as black as the death he brings.)

This fellow was quite the most active snake I’ve ever seen in captivity, and while we watched him, he watched us, slithering over all the branches of the tree in his cage and testing the glass.

Bobbi told me that, in Africa, one village was particularly welcoming of the mosquito spray used by members of her school. Not only did it drive of disease carrying insects, but it also made the black mamba that lived in the rafters of one of the huts move on, too. It is difficult not to ascribe evil intent to poisonous snakes…and I would have been very glad to see the back of this fellow myself!

The rest of the reptile house was fun, full of snakes of every sort, lizards, frogs, turtles, tortoises, and toads, but I have to admit that I was a LITTLE insulted by the fact that the Zoological authorities decided to decorate the Texas Sidewinder’s cage with sand, tumble weeds, barbed-wire, and litter: specifically an empty bottle of bud and a pack of Marlboro’s!

The enclosures at the London zoo are quite large….and most of the animals have much room in which to roam. But one of the neatest things about the London Zoo is the fact that, in many instances, you are allowed to enter the enclosures WITH the animals.

Many of the exhibits allow visitors to enter large enclosures where birds, butterflies or monkeys roam freely above and around you. The monkey’s, I thought, were particularly fun….it’s difficult to tell from the pictures, but this is not trick photography, we really are standing as close to the little guys as it looks.

Perhaps there are zoos in the United States which also allow this approach, but it is difficult for me to imagine in working in our litigious society. The minute some fat little brat from New Jersey stuck his finger in a monkey’s eye and got bit for his trouble…the parents would hire an army of lawyers to sue the zoo for allowing their little monster to get too close to the animals.

The trouble is not all on one side either, Bobbi and I watched gleefully as the little tamarin pictured at right , left his enclosure and waited near the edge of the airlock separating the animals from the outside world. He watched and waited very carefully to judge the entrance time of the next human visitors. At the last minute before making good his escape, however, he was spotted by a keeper who shuuushed him back into his tree.

The aviary is another place where one can get very close to the exhibit. These peacocks allowed us to get very close before they exploded into flight, which scared everybody equally!

The Lion’s cages have been re-done since the zoo’s Victorian Heyday. This is very good for the Lions, but there is still a nod to the old architecture of the place in the fact that the kept the old carved signs. The place which was, to Bobbi and I, the most reminiscent of the nineteenth century was the giraffe stables with their beautifully arched giraffe-sized stable doors and hardwood floors.

The other animals were fun to see, the pig was particularly pleasant.

The penguins were popular (particularly with squealing teenage girls, so we didn’t hang around long).

and the Dung Beatles were delightful (at least my little Dr. Awful-tologyst enjoyed them!)

The question of zoos is one that can be hotly debated. Are they jail cells, confining animals which should be allowed free reign in their natural kingdoms?

Or do they, instead, play an important role in the conservation of species which are otherwise under grave threat from extinction?

The answer is probably a bit of both. But I think that, until we all realize the danger in the clouds which hover over the natural world, zoos (while they may resemble jails) play a vital role in bringing people closer to the animal kingdom…it is perhaps in this way, that we, the people, will learn how to control the most dangerous animal of all….

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