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Lindy McDowell: Why I believe Belfast Zoo should be closed

A lion at Belfast Zoo
A lion at Belfast Zoo
Damian Aspinall with three gorillas released into the wild
Vladimir Putin
The proposed Boris bridge

By Lindy McDowell

I've told this story before. Some years ago I took my then small sons to the zoo. The exhibit in the gorilla enclosure was sitting hunched behind the screen like a particularly sullen teenager. We stared at him. He stared back at us with those deep, intelligent eyes of his.

One of the boys asked me a simple question about gorillas but before I could answer the only other person standing nearby - a little old lady - erupted into a volcanic lecture on the characteristics of gorilla species, the social structure of gorilla troops, their habitat, diet and behaviour.

"These are very social animals," she cried.

"They forage for their food. They cover long distances every day. To keep them captive in a place like this - this is just wrong."

And she was right.

It's been many years since I've been to Belfast Zoo so perhaps gorilla accommodation facilities have been greatly enhanced in the meantime.

I don't for one second believe that the people who work there or those who run the place are anything other than dedicated animal lovers.

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But I do think Belfast Zoo should be closed down. I think zoos in general are wrong.

And this week that same argument was voiced in powerful terms by a man who should know.

Damian Aspinall told The Times: "Parents should not be taking their kids to zoos. I know that would hurt me as much as anyone else but that's my honest answer. There's no excuse for any zoo today."

Why Mr Aspinall would be hurt "as much as anyone else" if people stayed away from zoos is that he actually runs a similar sort of establishment himself. He is the chair of the foundation that runs Howletts Wild Animal Park in Kent.

Not only does Aspinall argue for the closure of zoos - over a period of some years - but he also hopes in time to shut down his own operation (for obvious reasons you can't just shut down a zoo overnight).

He claims that the conservation defence - that zoos help ensure the future of endangered species - is false and that hybridisation and disease are common. He would prefer to see the money spent on zoos being channelled instead towards combating poaching.

In the wild the likes of our friend mentioned above - the lowland gorilla - is one of those species endangered not just by poaching but also by the encroachment of man upon its habitat.

I'm not saying there are easy answers to any of this.

But I do think the time has long since passed when animals should be kept in captivity for show - for "educational reasons".

Particularly on a bleak hillside in Baltic Belfast.

Among those who endanger various species in the wild are people motivated by that most powerful reason, their own survival. They hunt down animals for food or to protect their families from dangerous predators.

But that is a far, far cry from being the case in Newtownards...

On Boxing Day this week the local hunt took place there, much to the joy of DUP MP Jim Shannon, who describes it as "a wonderful occasion".

Mr Shannon claims that it's been years since a fox has been killed by the hunt, and anyway, he says, that's not the point.

Sorry, Jim, but actually it is. Success rate notwithstanding, a hunt is about hunting.

Mr Shannon says he has never seen anything wrong with "hunting for control". But pest control is not the object in this case.

It's about hunting animals - and, potentially, killing animals - as a form of sport, of entertainment.

And that, most people agree, is wrong.

Polls show that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland abhor hunting and want it banned.

On the cusp of 2020 it's outdated and it's indefensible.

And if you ask me, the same applies to zoos.

Vlad's lackeys skating on thin ice

In an annual game of ice hockey in Moscow between a team featuring Vladimir Putin and another which included government ministers, Team Vlad (to no one's great surprise) came out on top. The prickly Russian President, not especially renowned for modesty and sportsmanship, scored half the goals. Is it possible that his sycophantic ministers just let him? Because with mad Vlad in command, you're always skating on thin ice.

Deluded fantasy is bridge too far

Is the Boris bridge about to become the Varadkar viaduct? This week the Taoiseach had his say on the suggestion that we should consider building a bridge across the sea from here to Scotland.

Reportedly Mr Varadkar told Boris he needed his head examining.

Actually, no. I misquote. Apparently what he told Boris was that the proposal was "worth examining".

Et tu, Leo?

Amid all the pressing concerns we now have in Northern Ireland, faced with all the demands for funding for services that are truly needed, a fanciful plan for a multi-billion pound bridge over extremely troubled waters is "worth examining?"

Over again to Mr Varadkar...

"I do think that at the very least a high-level engineering assessment should be done as to whether it is a viable proposal."

And how much will this high-level engineering assessment cost us?

Mr Varadkar has no need to worry on that account. Because he has already made it clear that any bridge building will have to be paid for by the UK.

In other words he has nothing to lose by talking up the project. Nor does Boris, really.

To the PM, his suggestion that the bridge could be a goer is a handy crumb of comfort to toss to the delusional DUP.

Given the mess this country is in, why we are even discussing the project is a mystery.

It's not as if we haven't got more important things on which to spend any available money.

But to some in the DUP the bridge seems to have become a priority.

And they're going to keep on talking it up.

Come hell or (more likely) high water.

Belfast buskers hit high notes

Belfast buskers are just the best. Class acts I saw over the holiday period included the girl singer in Donegall Place, two lads, one on guitar, one on drums, and a wee girl doing a strange stacking trick with plastic cups. She was raising funds to take her to the world championships. I've also heard rave reviews for a group of young girl singers in Seventies gear outside Topshop. Brilliant, all.

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