Since the age of five, when my mother first took me to London zoo, as a stopover treat between the two trains that took us from Ipswich on the North Sea coast where my grandparents lived, I have been fascinated to be able to see animals, reptiles and birds up close, perhaps close enough to look into their eyes. This fascination never left me although as I grew older I preferred to observe creatures in their natural wild state, and not through steel bars or strong wire mesh.
Forgive me if I do not try to tip my toes into the long and convoluted debate over the rights and wrongs of keeping non-human life in captivity for the benefit or amusement of humans. Let me say that over the decades I have visited zoos that have distressed me, and a few that have delighted me. Having been involved in wildlife conservation all my life I am open to the notion that some zoos serve a valid purpose in education and in the preservation of endangered species.
Leaving this debate aside I would like to share with you a visit to an inspiring little zoo in Ube city, Yamaguchi Prefecture. We were guided around the Tokiwa Zoological Gardens by the director, Dr. Miyashita Minoru, a dedicated scientist and administrator who has devoted the greater part of his life to the creatures in his care.
The Tokiwa zoo does not have big animals such as lions, tigers, giraffes, hippos and so on. Not even a panda! This zoo has four main well laid-out zones where animals can be seen close up in as natural a setting as possible. The long-limbed, 'white handed gibbons'(shiro-te-tenagazaru/Hylobates lar) perform their daring arboreal acrobatics in real, living trees. A moat separates their little island from visitors (the gibbons don't swim). After what looks like showing off, the gibbons tend to look straight back at you, as if humans are the curious creatures on display. Sometimes a gibbon scoops up wet plants from the moat and hurls them at visitors. Don't worry. They have neither accuracy nor range, unlike some caged chimpanzees in other zoos who throw faeces at visitors!
However, the exhibit that really touched my heart and moved me to memories was that of Oriental small-clawed otters (Ko-tsume kawauso/Aonyx cinerea), a small otter native to India, Malaysia and China. Otters are my favorite wild animals, even though, as with children, one shouldn't have favorites. (Bears are my number two favorites.) I've never kept an otter as a pet.
These Asian otters were smaller than the British otters I loved as a boy. However, they shared the same sleek bodies with thick, muscular tails designed for swimming and fast maneuvers underwater. They had small rounded ears and bright brown eyes that look straight ahead. Otters have such an intense, curious gaze! Their whiskers are long, white and bristly. Their five-fingered forepaws are webbed and very dexterous, designed to catch and grasp a fish or a slippery eel while they quickly chomp the back of the head. Their fur is water-resistant. As they dive and swim they exhale strings of silvery bubbles. When it comes to playfulness, otters are at the top of the class. Otters invent games. They love to wrestle, tussle, slide and play underwater catch. Otters probably invented water polo!
Sitting in the dim light of the exhibit that allows you to see the otters as they swam or emerged from the waters to interact with the bonnet macaques (bonnetto zaru/Macaca radiate), that share the drier part of the enclosure with the otters, I was carried back in time to my boyhood. It was the summer of 1953.
("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol)