A good idea from ... zoos

Click to follow
PEOPLE LOOK at you strangely if you make a trip to the zoo without a child. You should have a gang of them, really, and evidence of dribbled ice-cream and balloons as well. Which is a pity, because zoos are in truth far more interesting for adults.

In Regent's Park the other day, I realised that it was years since I'd seen a real Jungle Book-ish sort of creature. I found them deeply, wonderfully peculiar. Take the camel: a u-shaped neck, two furry pyramids, eyelashes that seem coated in mascara, and a set of yellow buck-teeth. There was a guide on hand with some facts: camels can go 10 days in the desert without drinking; their humps are filled not with water but fat; the eyelashes are designed to keep out sandstorms, and their livers and kidneys extract all moisture from food, leaving their dung dry and compact.

Zoo animals embody the moral that none of us can be good at everything. Every creature seems well adapted for some things, hopelessly suited for others. The horseshoe crab could never get in the pages of magazine (it looks like a miniature military helmet with bow legs), and couldn't read Gibbon, but it's a star at surviving in deep water and not getting eaten by sharks.

Zoos help us to define our characters. It's hard not to feel a personal identification with certain animals. Flaubert loved the game; in his letters, he compared himself variously to a boa constrictor (1841), an oyster (1845), and a hedgehog rolling up to protect itself (1853, 1857). I left the zoo identifying with the Malayan tapir, the baby okapi, the llama and the turtle (especially on Sunday evenings).

A zoo unsettles by simultaneously making animals seem more human and humans more animal. "Apes are man's closest relative," reads a caption by the orang-utan enclosure. "How many similarities can you see?" Far too many for comfort, of course. In May 1842, Queen Victoria visited Regent's Park Zoo and, in her diary, noted of a new orang-utan from Calcutta: "He is wonderful, preparing and drinking his tea, but he is painfully and disagreeably human." (Reading this, I imagine being captured and placed in a cage like a room in a Holiday Inn, with three meals a day passed through a hatch, and nothing to do other than watch television - while a crowd of giraffes look on at me, giggling and videoing, licking giant ice creams, while saying what a short neck I have).

Inevitably, I walk out of the zoo with a pair of Desmond Morris spectacles. Asking someone on a date loses its innocence: it's merely part of the mating ritual of the human species, not so different from what llamas are up to when they whistle strangely at each other on autumn nights.

Then again, there is relief to be found in viewing one's antics as complex manifestations of essentially simple animal drives; for food, shelter and survival of one's genetic offspring. I may take out a yearly membership for Regent's Park Zoo.