Last Saturday, I had a date. And it wasn’t with my sister, my cat, or a melt-in-the-middle Marks & Spencer chocolate pudding.
Nope. It was an actual date. With an actual man.
But don’t panic; I’m not about to get all yucky and gooey eyed or put my Bridget Jones please-don’t-let-me-die-alone-and-be-eaten-by-Alsations hat on. (Although how great a hat would that be? Would probably be a bit misshapen and feature some suspicious looking stains courtesy of vodka and Ben & Jerry’s.)
I just want to write about the zoo.
Whipsnade Zoo, to be precise. We only live a few miles away, and whenever I see the chalk lion carved into the hillside I can’t help but smile. In years gone by my mum and dad would pack me and Chlo into the car, buzzing with excitement, and take us to what was basically heaven for mini me with my love of animals and over-priced ice cream. I’d run around with sticky fingers, captivated by lemurs, lions, and llamas alike – there are so many species that you’d struggle to herd your children around them all in just one visit.
My absolute favourite thing was the sea lion show. Barclay, Liz, and Salt (with a little help from their trainers) would have kids and grown-ups alike in hysterics. Barclay in particular was everyone’s favourite: the highlight of the show was him launching himself into the air in a burst of stream-lined brawn, touching his nose to a ball hanging a few metres above the water, and belly flopping back into the pool to ensure the resulting splash soaked as many giggling children as possible.
Barclay, Liz and Salt have presumably long since taken their place in the big ocean in the sky, but the new recruits definitely lived up to their predecessors’ legacy and my childhood memory. The morning show had been cancelled after a few minutes when it became clear the sea lions didn’t really feel like doing tricks – their trainer explained that they never make the animals do anything they don’t want to, and added with a grin that it’s their breeding season at the moment so they were a little sleep deprived. (Cue some confused children and sniggering adults.) But Bailey and Lara had obviously napped before the afternoon show.
They showed us their powerful front and back flippers, demonstrated by playing dead the perils of water pollution, applauded when the audience answered questions correctly, had everyone laughing at their impressions of seals, and floored us with (my favourite) their flipper-over-the-face horror at the idea they might be mistaken for one. (I do an outstanding impression of an affronted sea lion who’s been mistaken for a seal. Ask me about it after I’ve had a few drinks. You won’t be disappointed.) Despite the smaller females not being big enough to recreate the epic Barclay splash when they leapt from the water, Whipsnade had figured out another way of drenching anyone sat in the front row…
Hoses. So simple, so very effective. One thrilled boy of about six looked as though he’d not so much been sprayed with a hose but actually dunked in the pool. (His parents didn’t look quite so over-joyed.)
Hot, sweaty, and rather jealous of the hosed-down kids we decided an emergency ice cream stop was a must before we carried on with our sight-seeing.
Whipsnade is the biggest zoo in the UK. It’s owned by the Zoological Society of London, so works as part of the charity to raise funds for conservation. And no, they haven’t escaped controversy: a quick Google comes up with a shot chimp, penguins killed by a fox, and a chlorine problem that damaged the sea lions’ eyesight last year. So they’re not perfect. But I think Whipsnade care about their animals, and look after them to the best of their ability.
Still, you can’t help but wonder what kind of life they have.
They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, and this one certainly sums up my problem with zoos. Out of shot is a reasonably big enclosure with lots of foliage and climbing platforms, but even with the best will in the world no zoo enclosure can emulate a territory of hundreds of square miles. My date, seeing the photo I was taking, said sadly that it looked like the tiger was in a prison. Excellent sign for the date, not such an excellent sign for the tiger.
But saving endangered species and improving quality of life for zoo animals are sadly not problems that one woman can fix, alone, in just one afternoon. So I stuck my head back in the sand and turned my attention to a problem that could be fixed: my growling tummy.
Having spent the day being big kids, we then popped out for a very civilised grown up dinner at The Greyhound in Aldbury.
A smashing end to a smashing day! (See what I did there? God I’m hilarious.)