Believing in giraffes

Yesterday, ostensibly as part of I.’s birthday celebrations, but in fact chiefly to indulge Esther, whose birthday is months away, we all visited London Zoo.

It must be sixty years since I was last there – at any rate, as a paying customer: quite a lot of the enclosures can be seen from Regent’s Park, and I pass them whenever I walk into central London, as I often do when the weather’s good. There’s nothing like saying hallo to a hyena for getting you in the right frame of mind for a business meeting.

It seemed astonishingly reduced in size. When Esther was small we used to visit the country branch at Whipsnade in the Chilterns, which was less than an hour’s drive from our town. There, the animals are lodged in windswept prairies that you traverse on a little train. But the Regents Park establishment, which when I was a child seemed endless, can be crossed in a few minutes: only the most careful and ingenious design allows it to accommodate all those animals.

Tinies like I. get in free – perhaps not coincidentally the place was packed with buggies. But I was dubious as to whether he’d really enjoy it. It’s all a bit bewildering, even for an adult. Half the time the animals are understandably hiding away, and even should they happen to be visible don’t generally do much unless you happen to hit feeding-time. Sure enough, the tiger was fast asleep on its shelf, the porcupines could just be made out in their cave, the gibbons were hunched unmoving in their enclosure. The nocturnal creatures were in the dark, which I. didn’t like. The giant anteater, with its long, long snout, piebald front legs and vast brushy tail, was spectacular, raising a question that always perplexes Bruce when he sees swifts and swallows. How, he asks, can all that mass and energy possibly be sustained on a diet of gnats, or, in this case, ants? But I. wasn’t much interested in the anteater, predictably preferring steps, of which there were a satisfying quantity, and fleeting glimpses of wheeled vehicles. Where was the playground? he asked plaintively. Couldn’t we get out of this boring place and find a nice amusing street?

But then we met the giraffe.

Almost all the really large animals now live out at Whipsnade, but there are a few spectacular exceptions, and the giraffes are one of them, still inhabiting the elegant house originally built for them in 1836 by Decimus Burton (the zoo has always been a playground for leading architects.) And they are fabulous in every sense of that word, like giant supermodels with their long, long legs, elegant necks and ankles, thickly mascaraed eyelashes and outrageously patterned fur coats.

When my father first saw giraffes as a small child, doubtless in this very same house, he cried, ‘I don’t believe it!’ I., by contrast, had no difficulties in that respect. Unlike my father when small, he inhabits a world deluged by images of giraffes, whether in picture books or as toys – stuffed giraffes, Lego giraffes, Sophie the Giraffe in every form from teethers to jigsaws. Giraffes, these days, are part of every child’s mental world more or less from birth. But no mere teether can prepare you for the awesome five-metre high reality. I. was transfixed, as indeed we all were.

When eventually we tore ourselves away from the giraffe house and made for the monkeys, it was clear that he had finally twigged what the zoo was about. ‘I like zoos,’ he declared. ‘They have giraffes.’