Ten of the best zoos in literature

“Tobermory” by Saki

Mr Cornelius Appin teaches a cat to talk. “A few weeks later an elephant in the Dresden Zoological Garden, which had shown no previous signs of irritability, broke loose and killed an Englishman who had apparently been teasing it.” Clovis observes: “If he was trying German irregular verbs on the poor beast, he deserved all he got.”

“At the Zoo” by AA Milne

Even in Milne’s child-centred celebration of the zoo, there is a tinge of terror. “If you try to talk to the bison, / he never quite understands; / You can’t shake hands with a mingo – / he doesn’t like shaking hands./ And lions and roaring tigers / hate saying, ‘How do you do?’ / But I give buns to the elephant / when I go down to the Zoo!”

The Hairy Ape by Eugene O’Neill

In O’Neill’s thoroughly weird play, Yank, a ship’s stoker, loses his self-esteem when a woman calls him a “beast”. In the zoo, he seeks kinship with a gorilla: “Ain’t we both members of de same club – de Hairy Apes?” The gorilla “wraps his huge arms around YANK in a murderous hug. There is a crackling snap of crushed ribs.”

The Old Men at the Zoo by Angus Wilson

In the near future, Britain is at war with an alliance of European powers. Simon Carter, the narrator, is the secretary of London Zoo, whose troubles weirdly echo those of the political world. Their institution gets a new lease of life with political prisoners being sacrificed to the animals to entertain the public.

“The Jaguar” by Ted Hughes

At the zoo, most of the wild beasts have become indolent and tame. “The apes yawn and adore their fleas in the sun. / The parrots . . . strut / Like cheap tarts to attract the stroller with the nut.” Only the jaguar keeps his primal intensity, pacing his cage, “hurrying enraged / Through prison darkness after the drills of his eyes / On a short, fierce fuse”. Just like Ted Hughes?

Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban

William and Neaera, lonely 40-somethings, meet at London Zoo. They are fascinated less by each other than by the three green sea turtles in the zoo’s aquarium. They scheme to release these creatures with the help of a sympathetic keeper. Soon the turtles are heading towards the sea.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

If we are to believe the novel’s psychopathic yuppy narrator, Patrick Bateman, the nastiest of all his many murders is committed, appropriately, at New York’s Central Park Zoo. Strolling through the menagerie, he encounters a small child whose mother is briefly distracted and duly dispatches him. He leaves the zoo with his “hands soaked with blood”, unapprehended as ever.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

The zoo is where divorced parents take their estranged children for a “lovely” day out. In Lively’s multiple-narrator novel, one section is duly given over to selfish Claudia’s little daughter, Lisa, who describes in a thoroughly puzzled fashion a day at the zoo with her mother and Jasper, her careless father.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Martel’s narrator grew up observing closely the behaviour of animals in the zoo his parents ran in India. “Under such conditions of diplomatic peace, all animals are content and we can relax and have a look at each other.” His observation of animal cohabitation becomes useful when he finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.

“A Strange Barn” by Lavinia Greenlaw

This sequence of poems from Greenlaw’s Minsk explores the different animal enclosures at London Zoo, reaching out to events occurring in the years in which they were built. The aviary is linked to the making of Hitchcock’s film The Birds; the penguins in their 1934 pool tell us about the rise of fascism.


Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/nov/06/ten-best-literature-zoos-mullan