One of the treasured books of my early boyhood was called the Sunday Dispatch Animal Book - a tall hardcover bound in dull red cloth, containing grainy black-and-white photographs and descriptions of a wide range of zoo animals. It was given to me by a young Frenchman we had staying with us one summer as, I believe, a 'paying guest'. Though unimpressed by Hampton Court (c'est magnifique mais ce n'est pas Versailles), he had enjoyed London Zoo and, noting my interest in the animals, had given me the Sunday Dispatch book as a parting gift. I was quite bouleversé by his generosity.
I was reminded of this book, and that long-ago zoo visit, when we went yesterday to Wellington Zoo, a cheery modern zoo in a fine hilly setting, with plenty of activities and attractions. It has a decent collection of animals and shows them off inventively and as humanely as possible, all the while hammering home the conservation message - well, that is a large part of a zoo's job these days. The animals, as zoo animals generally do, rise above the indignity of their circumstances, carrying on their animal lives regardless, often rewarding eager spectators with a no-show, a defiant glare or (if they're really lucky) an act of gross indecency. The stars, by and large, live up to their billing - Wellington's Sumatran tigers are particularly magnificent - and the chimpanzees, well aware that they are performing for their kin, put on a splendid, all too human, show. These agile, mischievous beasts were a big hit with the grandsons, as were the tiny marmosets that, along with a torpid iguana, entertain (from behind glass) diners in the zoo's café.
At day's end I discovered that my face had turned a rather startling lobster red. New Zealand sunshine is famously strong, thanks to a hole in the ozone layer. They say it's healing itself now, though, as nature is wont to do.