March 2015

The Nation Reviewed

A day at the zoo

By Anna Goldsworthy
The Adelaide Zoo has a chequered past

When we visit the Adelaide Zoo, I usually have a destination in mind, but my two-year-old has his own agenda. It begins with the capybaras, the world’s largest rodents: doleful, improbable creatures, like guinea pigs re-imagined by Lewis Carroll. The zoo has a fraught history with rodents, but the capybaras appear to be thriving, delivering two litters of pups since their arrival in 2013.

“Hello, sweetheart! Like to see some skins?” The volunteers sit behind their table of pelts. Today they are proffering a red panda, an oily penguin, and a tamarin monkey with two holes in its face looking nowhere, as if punched into the skin. My child is wary – the volunteers are always a little too enthusiastic about their pelts – and we escape into the bamboo forest, home of the zoo’s two great pandas.

The panda enclosure is vast and luxurious, incorporating solar-powered panda accommodation, landscaped walkways, a bar for corporate events and assorted panda statuary. Although the federal government picked up the $10 million tab for the ten-year loan of the pandas from China, the associated capital works have contributed to the zoo’s $24 million debt. It is difficult to begrudge the pandas any of this: they are cuter than any large thing has a right to be. Wang Wang lies on his back, munching bamboo stockpiled on his belly. Funi is in her cubbing den, nursing a false pregnancy. Each year, the pandas have only a 36-hour breeding window, and for the past four years, Funi and Wang Wang – both sexual novices – have failed to copulate. On the way out of the enclosure, we pass a panda embryo encased in a slab of amber, sitting on a plinth like a giant cough lozenge. “Can I eat it?” asks my child.

We now have our first moment of disagreement. My son wishes to see a “goat has a tail”, but the children’s zoo is a long, hot walk away and would likely mark the end of our visit. It also has a dark history. In 1985, two teenagers broke into the zoo overnight, armed with knives and an iron bar. They killed 64 animals, mostly from the children’s zoo: rabbits, sheep, goats, antelope, joeys, chickens, guinea pigs, turkeys, three flightless rhea chicks, a duck, a llama, a pigeon, and a six-foot-long alligator. Most of the animals had their throats slashed; a number were disembowelled. In 2002, a further 16 guinea pigs were bludgeoned to death, and some stolen. “Only in Adelaide,” people whispered, and sometimes it sounded like pride.

I deflect the call for goats with promises of giraffes, and we tack back to the zoo’s perimeter. The former front entrance, with its grand wrought-iron gates and imposing Victorian masonry, now backs on to a modest froggery. Ten years ago, another teenager broke into the zoo in search of ice cream; he died after being impaled on the gates’ spikes, which are now encased in protective plastic. A little further around, the “Indian style” elephant house, constructed in 1900, is devoid of elephants.

Of the zoo’s many ghosts, Samorn’s presence is felt most keenly. A gift from the king of Siam in 1956, she was the archetypal elephant for generations of Adelaide children, hauling my parents around in her cart and later me and my siblings. Heigh-di, heigh-di ho, the great big elephant is so low. Rumoured to have consumed a bottle of Scotch whisky a day, she swayed more markedly as she aged until her retirement to the open-range Monarto Zoo in 1982. Less mourned is her predecessor, Lillian, who was euthanised, hacked into small pieces overnight and then minced, as Samorn made her queenly procession to Adelaide.

The giraffe enclosure still has tenants, munching on a branch tied to the trunk of a palm tree, like the most amateur of stage props. A family of meerkats keeps vigil in front of them. One of the females, “Michael Jackson”, has been inexplicably turning white. Occasionally a helicopter swoops overhead to the Royal Adelaide Hospital and the meerkats duck for cover, but a greater threat lies closer to home. In 2006, a man smuggled a baby meerkat out of the zoo in his backpack. She was later found unharmed in a cardboard box in a Hackham West park.

It is surprisingly quiet on a school day, except when the conure parrots squawk at a helicopter. The zoo might be a microcosm of Adelaide: that spaciousness, that endless sky, that feeling of being somewhere and nowhere at once. My son slowly chews through his sandwich, and we regard the two hyacinth macaws, spectacular cartoon creations in a pop art palate, confiscated a decade ago. A rescued kookaburra glowers at us from an adjacent cage. He is no longer able to fly, but when his wild colleagues begin their cackle, he sends out his song to meet them, rakish and free.

After lunch, we pay the briefest visit to the epileptic lion, depressed and isolated in his small cage, and then cross the main lawn, past the squirrel monkeys, towards the Australian aviary. In 2004, a man captured a squirrel monkey with a net. It was later found in an Edwardstown home, where a tenant was minding it in exchange for marijuana. In the aviary, a German tourist bobs in front of a stern black cockatoo. Two tawny frogmouths stand sentinel on the fence posts, at toddler height; it is my son who looks away first.

We push through the aviary’s double doors and arrive at the flamingo grotto. “Keep on going, Mummy!” my child encourages me, but it is here I wish to linger. Built in 1885, the grotto was originally stocked with 17 flamingos, many of which died in the 1915 drought. The greater flamingo, known as “Greater”, arrived at the zoo in 1933, joined by the Chilean flamingo, “Chile”, in 1948.

I am not sure why I find the flamingos so moving. The zoos of yesteryear are no cause for nostalgia, and yet there is something timeless about this place. For most of last century, Greater sifted through this pond, sometimes standing on one leg and sometimes two. In the zoo outside the grotto, people did strange things to animals; in the world beyond, even stranger things happened: a world war, a moon landing, a cloned sheep. Greater’s medical records speak of a peaceful existence. “Took a long time to get into pond.” Sometimes a duck came to visit. Chile was a curmudgeonly companion.

In 2008, Greater’s keepers discovered the bird in shock, unable to stand, with a depressed fracture in the skull. It seems that four young men had beaten up a half-blind, septuagenarian flamingo. There was not enough evidence for a conviction. Astonishingly, Greater recovered, surviving until last year, the oldest flamingo in the world at age 83. Its gender was never determined.

“Why flamingo friend die?” my son asks.

“It got too old.”

Today Chile stands alone at the back of the enclosure, on brittle bamboo legs with surprising pink knees. When he dies, there will not be another flamingo here, due to bans on importation. Chile looks a little shopworn, like a faded ceramic, but when he stretches out his pinioned wings you catch a glimpse of their lurid coral highlights and striking black trim.

My son gasps. “Mummy! Friend still there!” He points to the back of the grotto, where the keepers have positioned a mirror, and grins in relief. Chile’s vision is poor, but he must be able to sense something beside him as he sifts through that pond, continuing his life’s work.

Anna Goldsworthy

Anna Goldsworthy is a pianist and writer. Her most recent books are Welcome to Your New Life and The Best Australian Essays 2017 (as editor). Her most recent album is Beethoven Piano Trios.

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