For a Tyger, who still burns bright.
When I was a young child, I went on one of those school day trips to a zoo. From the foul weather, I’d guess it’d be towards the end of the year, November or December perhaps, when I suppose the school could get a decent volume discount because the place would be deserted otherwise. The school very much operated on a budget.
We munchkins had all been well wrapped, scarved and bobble hatted up by our Mums, and the wind howled without respite, blowing us tightly bundled up miniature Michelin people around like tenpins. The rain alternately drizzled down or drove at us horizontally all day and we sort of squinted and crocodiled our way through the deluge, hand in mittened hand like reluctant whirling dervishes, led by a couple of disinterested teachers on autopilot, who just wanted to march us through the hell of it as quickly as possible and out the other side.
The whole desolate landscape was a plain of damp grey concrete with iron bars embedded in it and a metal roof welded to the top of each pegged out enclosure. We got marched from one miserable exhibit animal to another but the one that got engraved into my child’s memory was the Bengal tiger.
He had huge paws, I remember. Exactly like our cat Suzy’s, but massive.
Some tour guide droned on about tigers for a bit but all I could see was it pacing from one end of a forty foot rectangular concrete-floored cage to the other in the driving rain. Every time it turned, it stopped and glared at us, enraged, before marching back to the other end of the cage to repeat the loop. It never varied its routine. Pace, turn, glare, pace, turn, glare, on and on, on and on, and on and on.
He hated us.
Even at that young age, I knew it was a cruelty to put a creature like that in such a terrible cage, or any cage at all. He didn’t have a way out and my heart went out to him.
Me, being congenitally the great escaper, I all too easily gave the teachers and the guided tour the slip to go back and see him again. I stood in front of the cage and thought let him free, don’t be this bad to him. You see, children know only too well what it’s like to be looked at, talked about, poked, overlooked and ignored by the world, and all I wanted to do was let him out, but I didn’t have a key. I never would.
Nobody has that key.
He stopped pacing and turned to look at me through the bars. His fur was totally drenched, the wind flecked clumpy bits of it up, he smelled like a damp rug and the thin skin on his shoulders was twitching involuntarily in the cold but his breath was warm on my face, raising a steam cloud and we stood looking at each other through the bars in the driving rain. One swipe, and I was gone, but perhaps he needed a visit. Yellow eyes looked into brown, and I felt I should do something.
Seeing no way of releasing him, I reached up and through the bars to comfort and stroke him, like I did with Suzy, but with one Earth trembling snarl, he blasted me back into the hands of a teacher who’d finally noticed they’d misplaced someone.
He still had his pride.
I fought to stay there as only a kid can do by triple massing their awkward kicking body weight but she snatched me back over the barrier and away, screaming and shouting.
I’ve never forgotten that moment of being there with him.
He could have taken some payback, but he didn’t. There was something there, over and above any anger and an imperious outrage, the grievous insult we’d done to him as a life, but yet he didn’t hurt me. One easy swipe and he’d have gutted me, from gullet to gizzard. In my innocence, I’d placed myself well within easy range of what was left to him of his meagre power.
Many years later, I read a paper that estimated one third if not half of all animals confined in such conditions had actually gone insane. I knew that already – if you really want to know the truth about an emotional situation, ask a child. Not many adults can handle the raw unguarded honesty they can deliver to you. Too few people ask their opinion.
To this day, I’ve never liked zoos.
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