As a child, my biggest treat was to go to Chessington Zoo. I would look at the sky to see whether there was enough blue to make a pair of sailor’s trousers. If there was, we would board a train and then a bus to convey us to the promised treat.
What was it that fascinated me? I felt sorry for the sullen lion that was poked and prodded, between much bowing by its keeper, to slope up and down a ramp and crouch before plodding through hoops as if half drugged. The star performer was the plump lady on the equally plump pony. They entered the arena with aplomb, she sitting sideways across the stocky pony, arms outstretched, in a balancing position that I envied. If the pony shied – that sharp movement sideways typical of an animal whose safety lies in speed and manoeuvrability – she would still, unshaken, be there poised sideways on the saddle, arms slightly lower perhaps. I imagined the sullen lioness in the wild, hungry and with cubs to feed. She would dart out at a herd of unsuspecting wild ponies grazing peacefully in a verdant valley. The thunder of fleeing hooves – the exhilarating rhythm of freedom.
Ominous too, like the rumble of thunder followed by a moment of expectation in a drawn-out breath.
I recall the lumbering elephant that seemed to draw all the space around it into itself, slowly, almost surlily lifting huge feet onto four drum-like platforms, unhappily perched while swinging trunk and tail and blinking expressionless eyes, its bulwark its only defence. Not easily killed, I sadly mused, but so easy to injure, to give it needless pain.
Alone on the sandy upland my horse’s hooves pounded the track between spindly pines and clumps of bushes. My mount shied, head up, snorting, away from a clump of heather. The girth was tight enough; the saddle didn’t slide round; I wasn’t tossed on to the heather where the viper had slithered away. Its yellowy-green body mimicked the sand and stones, but my mount saw it and leapt sideways to safety.
I was almost sick with relief!
After much pleading, my sister and I were taken on another visit to Chessington Zoo. The plump lady and pony were still performing, as were the sullen lions. The keeper at the reptile house was almost too friendly. I may have written about this before, but it bears repetition. In one huge glass cage was what seemed to be like a rather lumpy Indian carpet. It was a coiled snake, the keeper told me. The next glass snake cage was painted a dull yellow because the ‘mummy’ snake was expecting babies and didn’t want to be disturbed, but there was a spy hole at adult height. I was lifted up and peered in but could only see dark specks in a yellowy grey porridgy mass. ‘There’s nothing there,’ I protested, ‘but a browny orange smudge.’
‘Yes,’ replied the keeper, ‘that’s the snake’s eye on the other side of the glass. She heard you coming.’
I lost a heartbeat and, like my pony, leapt away. I have never been to a zoo since.