A Private Display of Animal Magic: In the Cool Days of Autumn the Crowds Leave and Life Returns to London Zoo

By Hann, Michael | New Statesman (1996), September 20, 1996 | Go to article overview

A Private Display of Animal Magic: In the Cool Days of Autumn the Crowds Leave and Life Returns to London Zoo


Hann, Michael, New Statesman (1996)


It's just a short walk - through the back-streets of Belsize Park, over the top of Primrose Hill and down the other side, then across Prince Albert Road to London Zoo.

It's also the nicest way to reach the zoo. It gives you the chance to spot celebrity north London wildlife on the way - was that a pair of squabbling Gallagher brothers? and it presents you with one of London's finest views, south from the top of Primrose Hill. London is spread out before you like a picture-book. Regent's Park seems a forest, the trees of its northern extent obscuring the open fields beyond, St Pancras Station becomes a cathedral, while the Mappin Terraces of the zoo break through the branches in an incoungruous alpine spectacle.

And it's best in autumn, preferably on one of those days, cold and clear as quartz, when the year seems to be bracing itself for a last look at the sun before toppling headlong into winter.

Enter the zoo and the first thing that strikes you is the emptiness, the stillness. Once the dog days of summer have passed, it becomes a haven. Occasional families still visit, the odd pair of old gents stroll around, chatting quietly (this isn't a dead-letter drop for M16 is it?), but the zoo belongs to the

The cold brings them to life in a fashion most visitors never see. The big cats lose their summer torpor, prowling their enclosures surprisingly briskly. The Persian leopard is the most noble. If you could have a big cat for a friend, this the one you'd pick. There is no leonine laziness or grumpiness, just the desperate beauty of the spotted coat, the haughty lack of concern, the transparent power of the body. The leopard's tolerance of visitors is not because it has no choice, it is out of noblesse oblige.

Behind the big cats are birds. Stop in front of the spectacled owl chicks, born earlier this year. Fluffy and white-bodied, with browny-black wings and rings around their eyes, they lack the solemnity of their older cousins. Maybe you'll catch them perched on a branch, gently shaking their heads from side to side, in silent but firm disagreement with each other. Or maybe you'll just glimpse one, sitting on the floor of the shelter at the back of the cage, eating a mouse. When it realises it is being watched it will look up and peer guiltily at you with those startling yellow eyes for a full minute, the mouse hanging limply from its beak, before turning away so you don't guess quite how bad its table manners are.

Another ten yards and you come to the Bird House, which you should visit to greet Josephine, the zoo's elderly spinster, a great Indian hornbill, who, it is believed, celebrated her 50th birthday earlier this year. In all that time she has never mated and she now lives alone with her memories, divorced from the avian chatter around her. Her huge beak is pitted and scarred, and her headfeathers are stained a nicotine yellow, perhaps from one too many Players No 6 with her port and lemon after the last visitor has left. …

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