When I was small we had an annual ritual. We were not a religious family but religiously, every Good Friday, my mum and dad took me to London Zoo. We did all the usual stuff – elephants (with a ride if we felt flush), camels (ditto), giraffes, lions, penguins. I have a feeling there were hippos there in those days. Certainly there were rhinos, though they didn’t do rides. The Pong House: full of the larger ‘small mammals’ like mongoose or skunk, I suppose, whose personal hygiene was so limited that all you could do was take a deep breath, hold your nose and race from one end to the other, looking neither right nor left. Why bother to go in at all? Who knows – but it was part of the ritual to be strictly observed: you don’t change Christmas and you don’t change tours of the zoo. The Chimps’ Tea Party: not acceptable these days, and probably never defensible but, boy it was fun. Boy it was fun. One year they bought me the models of it, which I played with at home till they disintegrated.
The supreme highlight, though, was Guy the Gorilla. We saved him till last every time, for the sheer anticipation, and because he was the one point of what felt like real communication with one of the great beasts. He’d already been there five years when I was born and I still felt a pang at age 26 when I heard he’d died during an operation. They replaced him with a full-sized bronze statue, which children still love to climb on and where I photographed my own children during their first visit to the Zoo. You can still see him, stuffed, in the Natural History Museum, where I know he still recognises me. We have a bond.
Why am I writing this now? Well, it’s a potent memory, but actually it’s because I have just crossed No 1 off my bucket list by spending some time with a real gorilla family on their own turf, the Bwindi rainforest in south west Uganda. At age 63 I wasn’t sure I was up to three hours up and down a steep, slippery mountain to find a habituated family, an awestruck hour in their presence, a rough lunch among the footprints of forest elephants, then three hours back – especially as I’d injured my back the night before. But adrenalin, anticipation, determination not to crack and – let’s be honest – the memory of Guy did it for me.
We found a mighty silverback and his family of fifteen. Every female had a baby and the conservation measures are clearly working, for now at least: a 25% increase in numbers since the posters at the trekking centre were printed. And while the memories of Guy run very deep, there is no comparison when the chance comes to see these astonishing creatures, with whom we share 98% of our genes, on their own ground. Amiably they make their way around the territory, minding their own business but clearly aware they are the subject of our adoration. Having no predators beyond humans, they are entirely confident, comfortable, at ease in their world. You can get as close as seven metres – less than that and you risk passing on coughs and colds, to which they’re not immune, so thank goodness for zoom lenses which produce some fabulous photo opportunities.
I still believe in zoos. They’re not any real substitute but most people can’t afford safaris and I doubt I can afford another one. You can watch nature programmes and of course everyone does – surely David Attenborough would have to be elected President if we ever abolished the Monarchy! You can see pictures in books, and even my holiday snaps. But nothing – nothing – apart from standing in front of one can give you any proper sense of an animal’s size, smell and sheer scale. Without that sense it’s hard to engender, on a mass scale, a real respect to underpin our efforts to conserve the natural world. So if it’s your best option get along to the Zoo, support its conservation work, meet the fanatically devoted keepers and even have a run through the Pong House. It will do you good.
Truly though, pace DH Lawrence whose encounter with a harmless snake evoked a similar wonder, gorillas in the mist (yes, we had that too, it rolls in all of a sudden) are the Lords of Creation – and at this point, though I vaingloriously describe myself as a wordsmith, my words run out. Come to dinner and I’ll dig deep and try to tell you more.