Dalian 4 – Zoos are unexciting unless …

There is life in them

In spite that a zoo houses multivariate living animals, these can be really ‘lifeless’. Not of course when energetic children are in your company because of the kick and thrill that they provide. And of course there are other ways too, if the authorities work over it. Dalian Forest Zoo is a comparatively small zoo but a worthy example of how authorities can be innovative in making a zoo whatever it takes to make it interesting and lifelike ….

The animal lodgings in a zoo are generally artificial and that paradigm ruins it. In safaris the pattern is reversed, wherein the animals are free to have their way and the spectators visit them in cages. In all other cases, normally the zoo-keepers struggle to make the dwellings bright and sunny but that alone can’t suffice. Birds in cages, mammals in concrete bunkers, reptiles in enclosures don’t gel with mocked up living conditions. This is probably the reason, whatever be the health record of an animal at the time of entry, his mental and physical condition always deteriorates progressively. Simply because they need freedom but that goes against the confinements in a zoo.

And did you ever think, how do the zoo-keepers manage to procure so much of meat for the large animals. I also pity that the smaller ones need to be sacrificed for them. This is an unequal equation. And above all, are we justified in ourselves, for the large animals denying them the thrill and satisfaction of a kill. Isn’t it like creating a good photograph and missing the fun of a selfie. I feel it is not fair. And so I am not attracted to this jungle of unfavorable balance.

Not until now

This was my view, after visiting a number all over the world. I still think and you might agree with me that one never goes to a zoo a second time, unless something is happening there, a friend or relative visiting you, a child coming off age for the fun of a zoo, a musical or a children fancy dress competition. At least I never went a second time. Everything is so un-natural and stale for the second visit.

But the smallest zoo I ever visited was tiny as a fly, but titanic in emotions. The zoo in Limassol was, and it still is, a venue unparalleled. With friends from different countries, they all found the zoo living. We used to visit it frequently, at least twice or thrice a year, and enjoy the yearly wine festival arranged therein. And if you have not tasted the red wine, Othello Vintage 92, you are missing something in life.

The insignia of wine festival in Limassol

The structures of the zoo housings could be improved if the administration acts responsibly and remains active, like in the zoos of Vienna or St Louis, but if they are not then quick dilapidation could take place. Compare them to the zoos at Chatbir, Mysore or Delhi, it’s not worth a comparison. I believe the design and style should be fixed just when you start building a zoo, otherwise it will cause excessive expenditure.

Zoos in St Louis , Vienna, and Dalian

Zoos in India

I admire people in advanced countries who respect the zoo-keepers because they realize their job is not easy. And the keepers derive all their strength not from within but from the enthusiasm displayed by visitors. Unfortunately, in India, in spite of animal rights and protection by agencies such as ‘people for animals’ etc. the discipline is yet to emerge and propagate. The zoo-keepers consider themselves simply as run-of-the-mill employees, and that’s all.

I carry a very poor opinion of people who visit a zoo just for picnic for the children, since this always results in eating and partying. An activity that distracts them from capturing or remembering any worthwhile animal related information, not even their family names. In comparison, young girls and boys from Russia and China seem to be competing with each other on the names of flowers, bushes, birds or animals. Hopefully this will change, as children here get used to comics and television.

In short, in spite of seeing some very well-manicured zoos in different cities, I find it hard to be impressed. I enjoyed the coffee and snacks in those ecstatic restaurants and saw some great humans around, but generally it was disheartening … So zoos were never a cup of my tea until ….

Until … there was a stranger in my company

And this is what happened when I saw the forest zoo in Dalian. And let me tell you upfront, it really changed the way I look at animals and zoos since then.

My expedition started in the downtown region where I was getting familiarized with a galaxy of shopping malls which housed expensive branded goods. I walked towards the famous MyKal mall and noticed a number of public transports, probably more than the number of pedestrians around, flocking me from all sides. It was my bewildering moment seeing so many neat and clean buses together, and with smiling drivers inviting us to get in. They were still empty because these were early hours.

Hesitatingly, I spurned into two of them one after the other, not knowing what to do or which one to select. I was looking for the most appropriate one that had enough promise for a fruitful travel on that day. The lack of travelers confused me a lot. But I knew, soon that will be taken care off and I would be just a one of the many.

Unable to choose a bus, I was looking around for other alternatives or clues as to what should be done at that time. Then suddenly I noticed a young girl eyeing me – an elderly sick man – with a smile on her face that looked quite mischievous to me. The Chinese faces appeared quite similar and I couldn’t decide whether the twinkle in her small eyes was genuine or fake. Was it a trap for me? One thing was sure, she had found me amusing. I hoped she wouldn’t approach me, for nuts.

I posed as if I was looking for something in my closely guarded and loosely hanging shoulder bag, lost in thoughts about the times when I had purchased the versatile bag almost 15 years back in Vienna, when she dropped a bombshell. She came forward and asked me some questions, of which I couldn’t make a head or tail of. Those who have read my other articles from Dalian may remember that I knew not a word of Chinese then and today it is the same awkward story.

But from her eyes and her expressions my considered opinion was, after all she must have been a genuine person. My extrapolation was, she wanted to help me about the routes and buses.  Believe me there were more busses on the countless adjoining stops in the downtown area than the travelers. I was admiring the buses and comparing them to the under-maintained Delhi Transport Buses with jealousy, anticipating, maybe, I would be fortunate in boarding one of them.

Our muted talk that was dominated by gestures and body language so far, took a turn for the better. In fact, was it not strange that our handicap was in no way a hindrance to our communication. Primary she was the cause of it. It was her overenthusiasm that she deduced I needed to go somewhere, and inferred I was fascinated by the buses. Fortunately for both of us a poster of the forest zoo was close by on the bus stop, that was blatantly glaring into our eyes. It stood above the rest. Pointing towards that poster she questioned me if, “I wanted to go to the zoo”.

As I mentioned above visiting a zoo was not my cup of tea, at least at that particular time. That reluctance of mine must have given her the necessary courage to make a proposal. After a bit of dilly dallying, using insufficient language and gestures, we decided that after all, the zoo might not be a bad option for me. So, I said “yes.”

And why not, how could a lonely traveler, lost in the woods, refuse such a fine offer. This ‘fine’ offer was going to be converted into a ‘kind’ one soon. So far, much in contrast to a normal Indian, I carried a right impression about the Chinese, which had been augmented through my travel to Dalian.

She offered to help me to the appropriate bus. And surprisingly … she too boarded it.

My legs were shaking and my speech incapacitated for a minute, since that act was a non-sense in my opinion. Was I not falling into a trap by a local female, and for no practical rhyme or reason. But now the die was cast and I would try to use my wit, intelligence, morality or whatever else to get out of her ploy.

We sat together in the bus and tried to communicate with each other. I asked her name without knowing how to ask. I didn’t know the translation of the word “name”. Her name was Sun Yujiao. I knew that men couldn’t judge a female’s age, and that too in a foreign country, so all that I could deduce was she was still in her teens. And why was she inside the bus, I guessed it might have been on her route. Soon she got into her stride and extended her shrugs and nods to communicate. She ultimately conveyed to me that she would be accompanying me to the zoo, and also spend time with me in the zoo.

So the bomb was dropped …

Photographs of Sun Yujiao

Los and foundt

The clock was ticking and the bus moved, until we came to the terminus of the route. Looking around I couldn’t see a zoo or something similar to suggest the likelihood of a zoo nearby.  But that is all the far, we could go in that bus. She almost jumped down to look around for the zoo. I had to follow her, rather quickly. She ran towards another couple, surely a newly married one, who had come around in this very bus. The couple was equally lost in this wilderness, but I guess they must be enjoying the thrill of getting lost in a bus!

The other side of the zoo

I had nothing else to do, except clicking a few photographs for posterity, and I got myself involved in that preferred hobby. She, along with the other couple returned to announce that we were at the wrong gate and must get into another bus for the right gate, which, later I realized was almost 3 or 4 kilometers away. All of them were almost running and I will never know why. May be time was running out on the tickets for the zoo, or simply the Chinese are quick to move around. I had to sweat out in keeping pace with them, probably my age was catching up and it decided to do that at this very moment, at this critical juncture of locating a lost zoo!

The one thing that struck me as unusual on reaching the front gate was the plethora of visitors. Even the zoo authorities had prepared for their arrival by arranging a live musical concert at the entrance. It took me some time to pass via the band, since I am myself an accordion player. Music enlivens me generally.

Photographs of the entry and surroundings of the zoo

I offered to buy tickets for both of us but she brushed me aside, “Its nothing. You, please enjoy and focus on pictures and animals. You will enjoy them.”

Really, I was prepared to shell out a few dimes but she knew I was actually interested in photography and I was not to be disturbed. This really speaks high of the individual. For her, my time and work was more important than anything else, for the time being. Even if she charged me a fees as a guide, it would have been completely justified and benevolently accepted. But I had realized she wasn’t a guide or an escort, but a college girl.

In the meantime, Sun Yujiao collected tickets with admirable smartness and we ultimately made an entry to the lost zoo. There was no mention or indication of any transport for hiring inside the zoo and her enthusiasm for walking was too great to be ignored, so we pressed on. From a distance, obliquely, I observed a toy train serving people for trips inside the zoo. If you saw me at that time, you would have taken me for a photographer.

“Let us first go to the reptiles’ enclosures,” she said.

“Certainly, well of course.”

I ignored her directions and got busy in clicking whatever was going around. And here I present to you the spectacle.

The toy train

Watch the attractions of the zoo while the story is about to unfold

Here, may be making a confession is befitting. I cannot but relate myself to the incomparable Dalian Zoo.  I felt as if I had come to a favorite place. My mind was amazed by the behavior of people and dazed by those loveable animals in the zoo. Was it not incredible to see single girls capturing the animals through their cameras – complete safety of everyone with no risk of animals jumping out to receive anyone.

Never could I imagine there could be such a lot of resident love for animals in the otherwise branded aggressive Chinese. This does not exonerate the negative side of their love for pets which I recorded on another occasion. The caged pets were being sold with energy and vigor at the bazar.

The reptile enclosure

Pictures of caged animals in the bazar

Looking at the reptiles I recollected that snakes and frogs etc. are a part of the Chinse cuisine. I imagined how obnoxious it would be to eat these on your plate. But it was strange that children loved to see them from close quarters. All of these were alive, since this was a zoo and not a museum, but they lazed around looking almost dead and inert. And for me, I am a vegetarian and the thought of eating them brought me to the verge of puking, and I enviably looked my companion who could relish fish, absolutely raw!

And she asked me, “Are you enjoying?” and me, … like, “Yes, of course.”

The Short Horse enclosure

Through the next enclosures, which were like small rooms laid along a corridor, we came to a decent looking hut. This was named by them as “Short Horse”.

A short horse is more chaste looking than its longer counterpart, the real horse. And in China, horses have long hair on their legs, like they were wearing socks. The timid looking horse was admired by everyone and people were murmuring as they went around it. By this time, the sun was catching up on our heads causing sweat drops to appear on our faces.

But this was also a respite in a sense that we passed by the side of a sprawling landscape and the crowd spread out a bit. It was just about in the center of the zoo and made a tremendous presence by its vastness. Close by the terminus of the toy train was visible, and the thought of boarding it flashed my mind. But Sun Yujiao was inviting my attention to the Panda enclosures and overrode the thought of train.

Some amazing aerial views inside the zoo, captivated me, and I am sure they will have the same effect on you …

The spectacle of forest zoo

The most loved animal in China, the panda was given a fairly large territory. Not surprising since they are also known as Giant Pandas. Three pandas were playing with each other. Their color combination, that is black and white, were contrasting in the light. A few meters away we also saw the red pandas. While bamboos make their staple diet, I wondered why the panda enclosure was made from it. Nevertheless, I was greatly relieved to see a vegetarian species.

Pandas and Bamboos

There were a number of eating stalls in the zoo, including the one that we had passed in the reptile enclosure, but what interested me was set beautifully. Here is what it looked like.

Eating stalls

I have forever been dumbfounded with Giraffes and Ostriches. How did God create such giant animals with so much of vertical coverage? The same was true for the other visitors as well, who were crowding the approaches to these animals. I wonder if eatables were permitted or not, but I saw them buying and giving it away to animals.

Giraffes, Ostriches and Hippopotamus

We continued walking, going up and down, through the enclosures for the animals like the blue sheep, wolfs and gazelles etc. It was well past lunch time. And although I offered her lunch, Sun Yi Jiao wasn’t keen on eating. In spite of the sun and heat, coupled with tiresome walking around, she didn’t ask for even a glass of water. What a tremendous resistance to thirst I thought? What material she was made of? Was she from the deserts? However, I was overwhelmed for thirst and asked her to buy me a water bottle, a very large one certainly. She vanished and returned quickly with a bottle which saw my eager lips to it.

Lions and Bears

And then started a tirade that lasted a good 45 minutes or so. During this period, we saw the immense power of lions, white tigers, and bears. Needless to say these were kept very far from the public and their jump ranges were much below the fences, but my mind lurked with fear, should any one find his way out. It was a glorious spectacle of a large number of beasts, put together just for us. We were lucky ad we saw the zoo-keepers throwing large chunks of meat for the lion cubs. I wondered, would they be sleeping after this feed. They were in any case in slumber.

I dared to mention to Sun Yujiao that enough was enough for me and that we should be returning. Soon it was going to 5 PM and the gates of the zoo might close. But that was an excuse she easily ignored. And she mentioned in her gestures, “Are you tired?”

“Not in the least,” my machismo was in question, and this question needed to be brushed aside.

“So then follow me,” she mentioned by drawing my hand towards a walk that represented the immense beauty of the landscape within the zoo. It resembled a hilly terrain from the Himalayas. Within a few steps I could see the sprawling sea far beyond. I, like most of Indian tourists, had they been there, envied the lucky Chinese who could find a great sea view even from inside the zoo. I saw the far stretched coastal seashore in every visit of mine, every day, from one end to another, from one site to another.  After all, it was the boastful coastal city of China.

The last feed, of Monkeys and Apes

Monkeys are in fact ignored in our country, primarily because these in abundance here. But one thing is sure, monkeys cannot be called uninteresting or boring, rather we refer to monkey-trick as an idiom of somebody’s behavior. They surprise you even when you’re utterly careful about them. The enthusiasm of children was remarkable, perhaps more than the monkeys themselves, while we approached the monkeys’ enclosures.

I wish I could speak to Sun YuJiao about what I was thinking about. The most popular question that was put to me during my trip to Russia in 1987, “Is it true that India is infested with monkeys and snakes? Do they move about on the roads?” That is the kind of attraction that Chinese and Russians have about monkeys and snakes.

The closing

Tired and hungry, we were returning to the bus terminus. Sun Yujiao was still excited about the animals, and of her trip guiding me throughout the zoo. And she had spent good five hours with me and had an untiring energy for walking. I remembered the time and event when we started. I returned to my thoughts about doubts and misgivings about her that I had started with, in the morning. An event like when we lost the gate, was a clue that she wasn’t a professional of any type. She was just a college student.

Could I have believed she would turn out to be the most impressive friend, guide and a stranger. Soon she would be leaving me and our fantasy of the trip would be shelved. It was a nostalgic feeling building up already.

At this point of time, I dared to make an offer. I wanted to compensate her, as was expected from a man from the materialistic or capitalist society for the trip, including the travel in the bus to the zoo. I know that entry to zoos is never scanty, particularly for a foreigner. Not only that, wasn’t it reasonable that I should have reimbursed her for the 5 hours she spent with me.

So I pretended I had no change in my pocket, so could her pay her a bigger currency note. With a great reluctance she took the money for the tickets. But I had mistaken her character, she refused the extras.

The exit and drive back was on my own, but we exchanged email addresses on the WeChat platform, remember Gmail does not work in China. This small travelogue is dedicated to her … But I wonder if ever she will read it …

Hats off to the people, animals and above all the government for creating such a fantastic facility in the city.

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