The big old Orang-utan with his crazy dreadlock coat clings to the bars with his fingertips, his back turned to the gawping crowds.
If I could paint a more adequate picture of the misery of this poor Orang-utan for you, all zoos would close tomorrow, and their animals released back into the wild. And yes, I do know from the number of times my children have made me join them in watching 'Madagascar', that wouldn't work either. Okay, okay, I know zoos do important work conserving endangered species, it's good for children to be able to see the animals, and, of course, people like me, just one of the hundreds of paying visitors trudging round the zoo-park yesterday, keep places like it open, but if you'd seen this creature....
The zoo, [I'm not going to name names here, because I'm talking about the issue of captivity, not any individual zoo's approach] have spent a lot of money on the enclosure for these creatures - from a human point of view. There are interactive displays, colourful maps and pictures to tell you about the animals, an attempt to re-create rain forest conditions with tropical plants positioned throughout, and tanks of snakes and other creatures native to the area, including one monitor lizard, whose accommodation, it must be said, was too small for it to completely stretch out. How nice.
The apes, on the other hand, are incarcerated in large concrete rooms with wood chips on the floor, a sizable tree trunk and various swinging ropes dangling from the glass covered roof. I must point out they do have access to larger outdoor areas, which do look nice, but it was a grey, cold day; I was glad to be inside. Compared to the 'human' side of the ape's enclosure, the only concession to aesthetics appeared to be the walls having been painted pale green. And in the corner, hanging from the bars to the next enclosure was this poor, sad being.
"He's always like that," I was told by a youngster stood next to me. "He's always just hanging from the bars. I don't think he likes being looked at."
"Neither would I," I said, shaking my head. The girl agreed.
So what of the orang-utan? Has he been driven mad by staring humans with their flashing cameras, while the concrete closes in around him? Has he ever known any other life, or has he always lived there in the zoo? We stood and stared, waiting for him to move. He looked round once, but it was as though he was just checking to see if we were all still there. And people will be, day after day, after day, after year. Maybe he wasn't really miserable; maybe orang-utans don't get depressed, but he looked like the most wretchedly unhappy creature I could ever imagine. His sadness was palpable.
I've had a story brewing in the deepest recesses of my imagination for some time about how we'd feel about being zoo creatures. It could finally be time to release it. But I am aware of my own hypocrisy. I decided to take my younger child to the zoo. And yes, since you ask, he did enjoy the day...