After several months of failed planning, I finally managed to get out to see the famous pandas of Edinburgh Zoo yesterday. I don’t really know what I expected to find behind the huge perspex screens, and it was a strange feeling to look down on both bears in the wholly artificial surroundings of Corstorphine. One of them was asleep on a massive pallet, but the other was striding keenly around outdoors. At one stage, it did a handstand and pissed all over the grill-gate which led to the other one’s pen. Otherwise, it did a few circuits of the enclosure and then went inside, where it climbed up onto a little hay heck and went to sleep, covering its eyes with its paws.
The experience of going to a zoo is obviously not aimed at me, and the sheer number of very small children who simply couldn’t give a damn where they were belied the real target audience. The “interpretation” was all aimed at kids, but yet I don’t think I saw a single child engage with any of it all day. I was gratified at one stage to see a zoo keeper brusquely tell a small child to “get off” the wall at the edge of the penguin enclosure upon which it had clambered while its parents stared passively into the middle distance, ignoring the huge signs which said “Please don’t climb on the walls”. It was appalling to see that they have also had to put up a sign that says “Don’t throw rubbish at the penguins”, and by the same standard, I wouldn’t have been surprised if there had been one which read “Don’t pat the bears”. I would have hung my jacket over the latter and then stood back to see what happened.
Seeing these animals does have an odd pleasure to it, but it is an unfamiliar one. I can’t weep with disappointment to see wild animals bound and chained for the edification of a goggling audience, because everything has lived for its entire life in a Zoo. They are anomalies which would not survive in the wild, so while it is perhaps reprehensible to perpetuate their emptiness into multiple generations, every animal I saw was being kept in immaculate condition. It’s a kind of lifestyle, even if it is not what was originally intended. To the Zoo’s credit, the beasts appeared to be content (almost everything else I wanted to see was asleep), and it made me realise that the key to my enjoyment of wildlife is the interaction between an animal and its context.
Take a koala and put it in a box, and you have got a very strange little teddy bear. Look at that tiger behind the chain-link-fence – what a funny cat. Animals become almost trivial when they are taken away from their natural surroundings; superficial curiosities that briefly titillate. It occurred to me that if I had seen a black grouse in the bird house, I would probably have raised my eyebrows briefly and then walked on. The key to my understanding and love of wildlife is an animal in its place – it’s not the lek itself, but the red dawn light over the heather – not just the clashing red stag antlers but the mist swirling over the corrie too. What you have when you take an animal out of the wild is literally the beast itself – an unobscured, curious arrangement of bone and muscle, relieved of mystery and magic. There is an amusement in seeing it, but it is a pale shadow of the original.
As I walked out of the panda enclosure, I was wondering what kind of habitat could support such an animal. What were the forests were the panda lives, and what is it like to be in them. I felt like I would know far more about pandas by spending a day in that habitat without seeing a bear than I did by looking directly at one for ten minutes just a few feet away. In the same way, I have not seen black grouse on many of the walks I have taken over the past few years in the Galloway uplands, but I feel like each ramble is a draught of crucial context that is every bit as valuable as close quarter observation of the birds themselves. I am pleased to have been to see the pandas, but more because of the human back-story; the cultural and political significance of Scotland receiving pandas from China, as well as the nationalist hyperbole of a Zoo shop which has commissioned its own “panda tartan”. It was a good day out in terms of its novelty, but it had little to do with wildlife.