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The Vacuum Issue 4 spacer Issue 4
At The Zoo
by Neal Alexander
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In his Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (1607), Edward Topsell provides detailed descriptions and illustrations of a succession of blatantly made-up animals, including Lamias, Mermen, Mantichores, Unicorns (in which it is, apparently, impious to disbelieve), and the Su, a "cruel, untamable, impatient, violent, ravening and bloody beast" that seems to be a cross between a leopard and a squirrel. Jorge Luis Borges and Marguerita Guerrero's Book of Imaginary Beings (1967) goes a step further, including Gnomes, Elves, Centaurs, Nagas, Nasnas, Norns, and Brownies (not, apparently, the popular girls' organisation, but groups of "helpful little men of a brownish hue" who do odd-jobs in the middle of the night on Scottish farms). Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of these animals were available for viewing when I visited Belfast Zoo this week. I did, however, see a small monkey with enormous military moustaches, a satyr tragopan (answers on a postcard), and a pair of red river hogs - each of which were fairly exciting in their own way. Yet there is a sense in which western zoos have lost something of their magical lure, particularly in an age where ostrich steaks can be purchased in Sainsbury's. The Victorian zoo provided a microcosm of the Empire, in which the radical alterity of exotic 'otherness' could be neutralised and enjoyed as an 'entertainment'. Nowadays it takes more to catch the voyeuristic imagination, and when we're not animating dinosaurs and hypothesising about 'lost worlds' (again), we seem to be obsessed with the human zoo, as marketed through the 'reality' TV show. The longest-running of these, Big Brother, invites contestants to be confined in an elaborate panopticon, where they will eat, drink, sniff each other's arses and piss in the bushes under the scrutiny of the general public, before being thrown out to turn tricks in a short-lived media circus. How can the humble river hog compete with this?
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As if apathy wasn't enough, zoo animals also have to put up with all manner of gets not only staring and shouting, but expecting them to 'perform' - I saw one moron chucking stones at the lion 'to make it roar' - or even inflicting actual physical harm. In February 2001, intruders broke into Belfast Zoo at night and set about the penguins with iron bars, before throwing one mild-natured gentoo into the lions' enclosure. It's hard to know whether the victims were Catholic or Protestant penguins, but they are unlikely now to pose a threat to the local cudgel-carrying community. To some the only good penguin is a biscuit. This last incident only serves to underline the rightness of the conservative media's conviction that, in Belfast, the 'real' wild animals are roaming the streets. Interestingly, one of these, the notorious Buck Aleck, is reputed to have kept two pet lions which he walked around the streets of his native Tiger's Bay, an area of the city that is clearly visible from the Zoo's extraordinary mountain site on the slopes of the Cave Hill. Indeed, while Buck Aleck's lions were a curiosity (and macho status symbol) in the 1950s, he seems to have unwittingly set something of a trend in recent years. A legal loophole means that the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976 doesn't apply in Northern Ireland, and rural areas have consequently seen a rise in sightings of semi-legendary creatures dubbed "The Border Beast" and "The Beast of Ballymena" by the local press. An Arctic wolf escaped from its owner in Lisnaskea, Co. Fermanagh in 1995, and a caracal lynx was shot while prowling close to sheep in Fintona, Co. Tyrone in 1996. Even some of the inmates of Belfast Zoo have made like Steve McQueen for the border. In 2001 two red pandas, perhaps apprehensive of being mistaken for penguins, escaped from their pen and across the mountain. They are believed to have hitched South and made a new life for themselves near Clones, Co. Monaghan. Local people I spoke to said they were a quiet couple who kept mostly to themselves.
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At The Zoo
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According to Stewart McFetridge's local history, Bellevue: Belfast's Mountain Playground (1995), the first zoo, or menagerie, in Belfast was situated on Dargan's Island (now Queen's Island) in the mid-nineteenth century - before Messrs. Harland & Wollf moved in. Around the turn of the century, a group of amateur zoologists and other lunatics introduced two pumas, an alligator, and an emu into Ormeau Park, which soon had the desired effect of discouraging joggers. Bellevue Zoo and Amusement Park opened officially on March 28, 1934 and was hailed by The Northern Whig as "a centre of hillside beauty and profitable instruction" - shades of late-Victorianism. During its heyday in the late 1930s, visitors to Belfast Zoo were apparently greeted at the entrance by Michael Moore, who claimed to be 124 years old and was therefore doubtless a rubbish guide. They could also take time out in the afternoon to watch the zoo's resident stuntman, Sarraguna, being fired from a canon and lifting pianos with his teeth. If young and frisky, they could return on a Saturday night to dance - at a pre-determined distance from their partner - in Bellevue's own Floral Hall. This last, in its present condition of geriatric decline, is the first 'exhibit' the present-day visitor encounters when following the zoo's 'recommended route'. In its lush vegetative surroundings, it's a striking cultural relic, and probably a symbol of something or other. While I was trying to work out what, I was disturbed by a rustle of wings which proceeded to land beside me on the path in the shape of a bloody great peacock. He looked at me for a second, then sloped off towards a flowerbed in which he proceeded to scrut about like an assistant gardener. You ain't seen me right. Furthermore, on closer inspection I see that a renegade group of prairie-dogs have spilled out of their enclosure and made their home in the grass bank next to the decrepit Floral Hall, reconfiguring the dimensions of their small, brown lives - if only very slightly. These are small rebellions, perhaps, but encouraging nonetheless.
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At The Zoo
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