Monday, 8 June 2009

Animal crackers

Vague thoughts had crossed my mind before heading off to Berlin that we might potter along to the city’s zoo (the one in the west, that is) at some point – not least so that one could say that one had said ‘hello’ to Knut, the world famous polar bear who is now two years old.

It was Tuesday and the weather forecast was not brilliant. We’d made the most of the morning with a boat trip on the Spree, before ducking into a café-bar, Berliner Republik, to escape the inevitable shower.

Musing over the rest of the afternoon ahead, The Other Half suggested the Zoologischer Garten. On first consideration, time in the open on a day of inclement weather didn’t appeal massively. But then the reasoning occurred that such weather might reduce the number of coach parties wandering around the place. So off we set from Friedrichstraße Bahnhof.

With the largest number of species in the world, it also offered a chance to photograph some exotic animals – something I’d never tried before.

Well, it was certainly quiet. We saw some elephants waiting to get into their ‘house’. And then a lovely sight of two young giraffes and two adults.

The big cats all seemed to be inside too: as we ambled into their quarters, a male lion was roaring, sending goosebumps up and down the spine. The cats themselves are magnificent – and a particularly insouciant leopard posed very nicely for a shot.

The carnivore house also houses the meerkats and the dwarf mongooses, which seem to be a competition in who could out-cute who. The meerkats do all the things you’ve seen on documentaries – including having one standing guard even though there’s no predatory threat.

And the mongooses spend a lot energy trying to all curl around a single branch together to sleep.

That produced technical issues – getting close enough to the glass to avoid it messing up pictures. But the results were very pleasing.

Our fellow apes were suitably ape-like and didn’t engage me anywhere near as much as I’d expected, some of the monkeys were far more fun – one little one dropped a rope while we were watching. Deeply distressed by this, it was comforted by a fellow monkey. It's difficult not to anthropomorphisise at such moments

And then there was a panda. Who was asleep. As pandas are most likely to be.

We grabbed a lunch from the café, where the food had been sitting beneath lamps for some time, given the lack of crowds, then hit the trail again, catching the pacing brown bear and finally, Knut. Who was lying down and doing not a lot, until he hauled himself up and ambled into his own indoor quarters.

It was the right idea. A few moments later, it started to rain. I managed to get under cover long enough to get my camera into it’s nice, waterproof bag, but got absolutely drenched as we headed back, as quickly as possible to the Elephant Gate.

It didn’t take much to decide to visit again. And we spent the best part of the Saturday there, in better weather and with bigger crowds.

The photography was challenging, fun and very rewarding.

But what made these visits so enjoyable was seeing the animals up close, in some cases, interacting.

Cats, for instance: it doesn’t matter how big they are, I now realise that they all eat grass, all patrol and all like to sleep on shelves. Which brought to mind the sight of The Queen Bee dozing on a bookshelf. Although I won’t be telling her that she’s got a lot in common with lions and leopards – she’s got more than enough grand ideas as it is.

Amazingly, on the Saturday, Bau Bau the panda was awake, while taking an extra lens with me enable me to get some corking shots of some of the birds, including while being eyeballed by a bloody big king vulture, which seemed to be echoing Robert de Niro and asking: "You looking at me?".

Berlin is doing valuable work in terms of conservation, but what seeing so many animals in the flesh, as opposed to via the TV screen, does is to usefully remind you of just how beautiful – and awesome – the rest of the this planets inhabitants are, and how much they need protecting.

I last saw a zoo – a tiny, private one – in KwaZulu Natal about 11 years ago (run by a certain famous circus family) and it was dreadful – very, very upsetting, with cages that were far, far too small for big cats and neurotic apes that were alone and with sod all to distract them.

Berlin is what zoos can be. And I won’t be waiting as long to pay a call to a zoo again.

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