When I was nine, I worked for perhaps three weekends in a zoo.
It was a tiny South Welsh concern called Penscynor Bird Gardens (later Wildlife Park) and originally housed birds, monkeys, an aquarium and llamas. When I was fourteen or so, our school cross-country route ran through the llamas’ field and they used to chase us. When I say ‘us’ I mean the obedient/boring (take your pick) three girls who used to run the route properly rather than hide in the woods gossiping and/or smoking until the games lesson was over.
Anyway, back to the job when I was nine. I don’t know how my father found out about it but he said I could earn 50p every Saturday. This sounded like a great plan as my usual weekly pocket money was 15p if I was lucky, and I loved animals.
Or at least, I loved the idea of them. My total zoological experience (apart from owning a cat) was the many hours I spent observing mini-beasts, reading books about realistic (rather than anthropomorphised) animals and watching wildlife programmes like The World About Us and Jacques Cousteau. If you’d asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d have said a writer-naturalist, like Gerald Durrell or Joyce Stranger. The fact that I was terrified of dogs, didn’t like strong odours or being excessively dirty, and generally left the unpleasant parts of animal care to my mother didn’t seem to factor in my thought processes.
So I took the job.
My role chiefly consisted of chopping up over-ripe fruit for small noisy, fast-moving and seemingly incontinent creatures from marmosets to toucans before helping clean out their cages.
It was an extremely hot summer. The air in the cages was sickly with the stench of blackening, squashy bananas, oozing melons and the acrid odour of droppings. High-pitched chattering monkeys and birds snatched at food through a haze of fruit flies as fast as I could pile it in their bowls. I remember the gold of the summer light through the leaves above the cages’ roofs, the monkeys’ oh-so-innocent eyes distracting me from what their tiny pickpocket hands were doing, flashes of iridescent fur or feathers, the whisk of wings or tails overhead. I think I’d have liked it if it hadn’t been for the smell. Maybe.
The second weekend, they were photographing for the new brochure and asked me to stare into the fish-tanks like a tourist. Being self-conscious or vain (take your pick), I was torn between being thrilled, and wishing I were wearing something more glamorous than an old tee-shirt, shorts and wellies, but I duly did as asked. When the brochure came out, there I was, looking very solemn and with a slight overbite I hadn’t known I had which I’ve worried about ever since.
My parents kept the brochure for years. Of course, it’s since fallen foul of two house moves and is nowhere to be found. Nor have I so far found anything online except for images of the cover.
I can’t remember how long I lasted, but it wasn’t long. The experience dampened my urge to be a naturalist and by the time, three years later, a huge stag beetle climbed down inside the back of my blouse causing me to scream so loudly that my father nearly crashed the car we were in, I went off zoology altogether. This was just as well given my abysmal performance in science.
I still can’t bear over-ripe fruit but I wasn’t put off cats or writing and perhaps if there’s a lesson I should have learnt then but didn’t till later, it’s to know where your strengths are, concentrate on them and not feel bad about it.
The Bird Gardens remained part of my life till I went to university because on most days you could hear the peacocks shrieking across the valley.
A tiny, tiny bit of me wishes I’d stuck it out and been part of that mad enterprise in that most unlikely of places but I didn’t and never got to return as an adult because the Bird Gardens have long since closed.
But by one of those small-world flukes, I recently discovered I’ve ended up living 134 miles away in the same town as someone who attended the same secondary as me, albeit ten years later.
‘Do you remember the Bird Gardens?’ she asked.
‘Did you hear about the chimpanzees escaping and getting into the school?’
‘No!’ I exclaimed. ‘Why didn’t my parents tell me?’
But my mother hadn’t known and when I emailed an old schoolfriend, she hadn’t heard either.
‘Fancy missing that,’ she said, sending links to photographs of the place as it is now, an abandoned ghost-zoo. ‘Why didn’t it happen when we were there? The chimps would have been less trouble than some of the kids, not to mention brighter.’
She had a point. It would have been even more fun than the day our French lesson was enlivened by watching the windows of the chemistry lab being flung open to let twenty kids dangle out gasping for air while dark, presumably noxious fumes coiled round them and up into the aether.
A couple of months ago, as lockdown was biting, my former schoolfriend sent a link to a newspaper clipping about a wallaby seen one night bouncing through the village where our school was. The photographs are blurry, unreal and mysterious as what appears to be a wallaby is hotly pursued by what’s stated to be a police officer.
In quiet understatement a witness worried ‘it’s a bit chilly to be out as a marsupial in Wales’ and RSPCA Cymru said ‘it’s certainly unusual footage’.
Was it really an escaped pet? Was the pursuer, in fact, really a policeman?
Or was it really, a ghost of a memory trying to get back to the Bird Gardens.
I like to think so.