Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Wonders of the Zooniverse

On Monday we took a very snowy drive to Asahikawa to go to Asahiyama Zoo! I'll spare you the suspense, it was pretty awesome.

Like any good liberal, middle-class boy before my trip I was conscious that zoos are probably a barbaric, outdated form of entertainment - akin to badger baiting, bull fighting and shooting Belgians. However Asahiyama Zoo is a pretty serious proposition, and it turns out that all the animal enclosures are meticulously designed to be as satisfying a prison as any beast could hope to be confined in. For example they know that seals like to swim in large vertical loops in the wild, so they design their pool to be very deep, with vertical tubes for them to swim through. All the animals seemed pretty content, even when wandering in the snow, except for the monkeys, who looked to be thoroughly miserable out in the cold.

Oh coz it snowed a lot! It has been snowing quite a lot here in general, so there's a covering everywhere and big piles where it's built up. It's getting pretty cool and we had to drive through a few blizzards to make the two hour trip up the highway. On a side note Japanese highway tolls are steep! About 15 quid each way for that two hour cruise! Yowzer! The zoo is only open for a limited time every day in the winter because the weather is too cold for most of the animals, so they only let them out for some fresh air for a few hours. We missed the hippo, coz he only comes out for an hour a day. But part of the joy was seeing some of the animals pad around in the snow, certainly the tiger seemed particularly incongruous. Others like the penguins and polar bears of course are probably pretty smug. Here were some of the highlights:

The polar bears were awesome. Not much more too say about them, but I took some nice photos so check it out. One of them was swimming endless laps which was probably a good idea since it was -6C above the surface. By the way "bears underwater" are one of those things like swan boats that you can't take a bad picture of.

The penguins were, y'know, penguins. Cute and all. There was a baby one that was pretty much the size of a regular penguin but with brown fur, he looked like a sulky teen. And once a day they lead the penguins on a "march" (I know) around the zoo to give them some excercise. We saw them coming home, I have to admit it was pretty sweet.

The lions, tigers, panther and leopards were all great. Their cages backed onto each other, and the big male lion was right at the back of his pen pacing backwards and forwards eyeing the tigers malevolently. The tigers were prowling, y'know, taking no notice.

"It's like my lunch is in a microwave and the door is jammed shut."

I probably haven't been to a proper zoo since I was a kid, so it was an odd experience, and yes slightly awing to see a lot of these animals. When you see a tiger strolling past a few feet from the (hopefully reinforced) plexi-glass partition, you get this sort of feeling of muscle and sinew and teeth and claws that gives you a sensation somewhat akin to being a steak. And frankly I can see how, left unchecked, that feeling could expand, leading you to buy XXL silver on black t-shirts and airbrushed poster prints entitled "Lord of the Savannah".

The other thoughts that you often entertain are, of course, "Could I take this animal in a fight?" Lions, Tigers, Bears? Hell no. Lesser Big Cats? I'd like to think I could give a fair account of myself (opposable thumbs, some sort of improvised weapon). Seals? On land sure, under water they'd probably have me. Deer? I reckon so. Penguins? Piece of piss. Simians? Um...

I found the simians unnerving. For a start when I was a kid I heard that an adult male orangutan has enough upper body strength to pull your arms off like you were Mr Potatohead. That sort of thing stays with you, so there was nowhere near enough bars between the orangutan family and me, partly because there were no bars between us. The orangutans lived in a network of branches, ropes and bars at the top of a vast, cavernous room, presumably far enough back that they can't launch themselves onto you if you start throwing batteries at them or something. Still, I was a little spooked.

Like I said I felt sorry for the monkeys, but the chimpanzees? Those things are just sinister. For some reason they look more like devolved humans than evolved apes, and they all have patchy fur with disturbingly human physiology underneath. And creepy eyes.

What else? Red Pandas are of course the second cutest animal in the world (after chinchillas) so they were very popular. The zoo had set up a crazily unsafe looking panda foot bridge over the pedestrians so that the little bears could peer down on the crowds cooing up at them. Nothing to stop them from dropping off into the mob, but then they're pretty docile looking things. They're in the "No Problem" column of my earlier list. Seals are pretty cool, but not as cute as you think. They're like big, greasy sausages that can only move themselves outside water by crudely jerking themselves like a clinically obese boy who just suffered a stroke. Underwater they're like fucking tubby torpedos though.

"We're sort of recreating Temple of Doom with pandas instead of people, and people instead of crocodiles. It's a think piece."

All in all a great day! And I walked away with nary a trace of liberal guilt! So bascially I might be an arsehole, but I'm an arsehole who likes Asahiyama Zoo, and I can't wait to go back in the summer! Hippos!

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