Memories of the sad face of a lonely gorilla convince me Belfast Zoo on a cold day is no place for tropical animals
I can't remember the last time I was at Belfast Zoo. But I do remember one of the last times. Our boys were still small and on a bleak, rainy day, having nothing better to do, l decided we'd go and visit the global wildlife.
My particular memory is stopping by the gorilla cage. The big boy himself was just sitting there, facing us square-on, scrutinising us as intently as we were scrutinising him.
Without wishing to sound like Dr Doolittle, I did get the impression from the look he gave me that he was not an entirely happy exhibit. Let's just say there was something of the accusatory stare about it.
Okay, so maybe this was me transposing my own guilty feelings on to the beast. But on a grim Belfast day with a wind blasting that would have cut you in two, it was hard not to feel sorry for this majestic creature, caged in Cave Hill.
"Where does he come from?" one of the boys asked. And at this, a wee elderly woman standing beside us, hunched against the weather in her knotted headscarf, suddenly, startlingly, exploded into a tirade.
For the next five minutes without coming up for air, she described the natural habitat and habits of these highly intelligent creatures and raged at the iniquity of keeping one, in solitary, in a cage.
In the wild, she told us, gorilla 'troops' roam freely up to a third of a mile a day in the lush forests of Africa, foraging for food. The glorious picture she painted was patently at odds with the lonely figure before us, staring mournfully from his cramped billet on a chilly hillside in north Belfast. I can't think of any way to sum it up better than the words of Councillor Chris McGimpsey, who has described the zoo as being "like a Victorian peep show, with animals in inappropriate conditions, in cages that are too small, enduring a climate that is all wrong".
Mr McGimpsey adds: "You take animals from Sub-Saharan Africa and stick them on the hill at Bellevue, where they sit and shiver while we gawk at them through the bars."
He wants to see the zoo shut down and replaced by a conservation area for native species. I am sure the current inmates are as well-cared for as they can be in the circumstances. But putting animals on display in unnatural conditions in our dodgy climate has to be questioned in 2016.
Financing may be a deciding factor for some. Apparently the zoo costs taxpayers somewhere in the region of £2m. Per annum.
But surely the welfare of the animals should be our primary concern?
Supporters claim that zoos are educational. Really?
In all these places where we encourage children to gawp and grope and poke and pet other creatures, what is the first, big lesson we are actually teaching them? That other living beings are there for our entertainment.
"Cave Hill is no place for lions, elephants, giraffes and many of the 150 species that are currently incarcerated there," according to the animal rights group Northern Ireland Says No to Animal Cruelty. (Could do with snappier title, guys?)
They are right, and Chris McGimpsey is right. The zoo is outdated, costly, and as for the climate...
To use an old political cliche with which McGimpsey will be familiar, Bellevue is a cold house for giraffes, lions, tigers and elephants. And gorillas.
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