Stan Hey: And finally... a campaign to keep Foster free

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The Independent Online

A hot and sunny weekend brought the usual batch of unfortunate and grisly stories, almost as if a spell of good weather is obliged to compete with the worst headlines. There may, indeed, be a sort of equalising process going on, with the hedonistic joys of high summer being offset by curt reminders about both our fragility and our capacity for unhappiness. Thank God, then, for Foster the vulture, that's what I say.

If you have been dwelling too long on the darker news, you might have missed Foster's escapades before he was finally caught yesterday in Suffolk by one of his handlers. Foster had decided to have the week off, and took flight from his home at Banham Zoo, near Diss in Norfolk, last Monday.

Maybe the hot weather triggered a primitive response in him to soar high on the thermal currents. Maybe he just wanted to head for the coast and find a girlfriend; after all, he doesn't need a soft-top Suzuki jeep, a reverse baseball-cap and a pair of Ray-Bans to undertake this task.

Whatever Foster's motives were, his actions have come as a blessing to certain elements of the media, not least this small box up here among the serious comment. Foster doesn't know it, but he is perfect "and finally..." material for ITN's news bulletins. If only he had stayed free, he could become the focus of a tabloid campaign.

Remember Blackie the Spanish donkey, rescued by a red-top from his imminent fate at a cruel pageant? Remember the two pigs that escaped from a Wiltshire abattoir, who were adopted by fast-moving hacks with a keen eye for a human interest story?

Foster may even have some innate media nous, given that at one point he managed to perch at a vicarage. This boy's a real pro, because anything involving a vicar and an animal is just gold dust for those news hounds that we sometimes describe pejoratively as, er, vultures. But it could have got even better.

The little calf that was spared from the bolt gun during the foot-and-mouth crisis by a Downing Street directive set a precedent for the highest powers in the land being obliged to respond to public sentimentality.

If Foster had held out for a few more days, might the Tory leadership aspirant Michael Portillo have stepped forward to pronounce him a symbol of the nation's inclusiveness, despite a vulture's poor credentials with regard to domestic residency?

His campaign managers would surely have seen the potential of a photo opportunity here. If, for example, Mr Portillo could have been persuaded to pose with this vulture on his leather-gloved arm, he could reach out to his party with this speech.

"As another Foster, EMForster to be precise, once wrote, 'personal relations are the important thing for ever, and not this outer life of telegrams and anger,' and I urge you to consider this before voting for me."

Sadly, none of these instances will now happen to Foster, unless Max Clifford steps in to represent him in the immediate future. In the event, Foster was recaptured fairly easily – he is, technically, tame after all – and willnow be returned sadly to his life of hand-fed captivity. Nobody will ask why a South American bird of prey should be stuck in a zoo in Norfolk. Nobody will embrace the argument about the educational value provided by zoos being set against the freedom of the animals inside it.

Yet there's a change in the air. The long-established bird gardens a few miles south of my home closed earlier this year, citing not what might be called ecologically correct pressure, but the simple social fact that today's children prefer the theme park and the activity centre to the mute spectacle of captive wildlife. In this age of direct experience, whether via the webcam or the facility of foreign travel, perhaps children can recognise that a bird in the bush is worth two chained to a hand.

stanhey@aol.com

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