Speaker by Various Artists

The King, and the animal kingdom

by Graham Reid

Last week the anniversary of Elvis' death on Monday passed without much comment. Funny that, because up to now some radio stations and fans seem inclined to make a big deal out of it. I guess we're all getting older and such anniversaries just embarrass us. Hell, if he'd lived he'd have been 69 and that doesn't bear thinking about.

But Elvis' tragic life looms large over popular culture, so recently when we were in the States we went out of our way -- and believe me, it is well out of anyone's way -- to go to Tupelo to see just one thing: the two-room shack where a King was born.

Once it was some way out of town but now of course Tupelo has sprawled around it and the battered old house has had a few licks of paint. Quite a few actually. You get the impression someone comes every day to scrub and paint the whole damn thing again. It is spotless, as is the chapel nearby where presumably you can pray for your, or Elvis', lost soul. We took photos inside and out of his former home and sat on the porch. I had a shot taken of me looking like I was shaking hands with the statue of the 12 year old, guitar-carrying Elvis, and we bought fridge-magnets and other such Elvis junk at the gift shop.

Elvis may have left the building, his childhood home and indeed the planet, but Presley capitalism was alive and ... Well, it was just taking in money hand over fist. It was an odd and brief experience so we went to other sights around Tupelo, notably an automobile museum then their famous buffalo park. Neither cars nor animal parks are particularly my thing, but the former was terrific and the latter ... Hmmm.

My wife loves animals (they are cute, apparently, especially those which grow up to be man-eaters) and she was distraught at the parlous state of the Tupelo Buffalo Park. The lumbering beasts themselves seemed in good nick and had plenty of land to roam around on, but the brown bear, some middle-sized members of the cat family and other such handsome creatures were penned in small, concrete-floor cages and looked in pretty bad shape.

She took video footage with the intention of reporting the owners to the authorities, but was much placated later when a very nice guide -- who had lived in Australia so understood us -- explained they had bought these animals only recently to rescue them and the park was in the process of building bigger and better cages. We saw little evidence of that but he seemed genuine enough so we thought that was okay. If you are in the area I'd love to know if those cages have been built and whether that giraffe still has weeping sores on its legs.

Zoos and animal parks don't have to be this way, of course.

The elephant park at the Singapore Zoo for example really is something to see. An overhead walkway lets the curious get above the spacious and densely forested area where elephants roam and take their ease. There is a lake for them to gambol around and soak themselves, and this is where they are brought to entertain and educate the curious. Kids can feed them and pat these gentle giants on their stout trunks.

The Singapore Zoo is an unexpected highlight of any visit to this crowded island at the bottom of Malaysia. If nothing else it is a refuge of quiet away from the bustle of Orchard Road shops and malls, but it is also much more than that. It is perhaps the way all zoos should be, for humans and other animals alike.

It is located alongside a large reservoir so is a cool and even place for weary humans to walk around. There are regular air-conditioned rooms along the path where small shuttle trams also run for the truly lazy or infirmed. Animals are in large enclosures just beyond deep moats so there are few places where there is a sense of them being caged. To stand within metres of a white rhino or frisky zebras running around their enclosure is quite special. Some animals -- small monkeys, lemurs, langus and the like -- are free to roam throughout the airy park and swing in the branches overhead.

Singapore's zoo -- some 2000 animals of 420 species, of which 70 per cent are endangered -- is spread over 100 hectares in the north of the island. And is something to see as the 1.4 million people who go through its gates annually would attest.

The nearby Night Safari park is even more exciting: around 1500 animals are housed in areas which are similar to their natural environments. If being close to white rhinos by day is thrilling then to hear a big cat growl from somewhere nearby and invisible in the night can be chilling. Yes, Singapore Zoo and the Night Safari are terrific for humans, but for the animals? Zoos are anathema to many people but if we must have them then Singapore's is one of the best. The animals have ample open space, are well fed and cared for, and seem psychologically sound. You don't see too many pacing up by the bars. In fact there are few bars and the wild animals are separated from the paying animals by wet or dry moats, or thick glass.

Like Taronga Park in Sydney and increasingly Auckland's zoo, Singapore's is a model of thoughtful and innovative design which accommodates the instincts and habits of the animals it houses by replicating their natural environments. Of course there are those who argue we shouldn't have zoos at all, they diminish us as much as entrap animals which would be happier in the wild. Well maybe -- and maybe not.

The much acclaimed, prize-grabbing novel Life of Pi by Canadian writer Yann Martel makes an amusing and politically incorrect defence of them. "I have heard as much nonsense about zoos as I have about God and religion," says Martel's improbably-named narrator Piscine Molitor Patel, whose father ran a zoo in Pondicherry.

Patel then goes on to demolish the argument of those well-meaning but misinformed people who think animals in the wild are happy and free. These are people, he says, who in their romantic imagination see a handsome lion or cheetah (never an aardvark) roaming the savanna and walking off their meal of a prey which went nobly to its death.

"They imagine this animal overseeing its offspring proudly and tenderly, the whole family watching the setting of the sun from the limbs of trees with sighs of pleasure. The life of the wild animal is simple, noble and meaningful, they imagine."

Not so. Animals live in a state of constant nervous tension in a world where fear is high and food supplies low, where they must constantly define their territory and defend their lives which are threatened by lowly parasites and larger predators. Surprises are disagreeable to them, they stick to their territories and well-travelled paths because to change them would be to expose themselves to unknown dangers. They are far from free in the wild, in fact they are mostly terrified and live within a very defined area. They don't just wander off somewhere when it suits them.

How much happier they must be then in a world where their relentless search for food is over, where they have a defined and predictable place free of surprises and threats, where all their needs are met. Of course an enclosure in a zoo is smaller than the great plains, but just as a house for a human is a compressed space where all our basic needs are met, so it is with an animal. A good zoo has all the places an animal needs for its comfort and is not subjected to the constant threats of the wild.

"A good zoo is a place of carefully worked-out coincidence: exactly where the animal says to us, 'Stay out!' with its urine and other secretions, we say to it, 'Stay in!' with our barriers. Under such conditions of diplomatic peace, all animals are content and we can relax and have a look at each other."

The narrator then recounts those incidents where animals find their enclosures breached or doors open and so wander out, only to beat a hasty retreat back into the world of the familiar. Much like we all do. "Think about it yourself. Would you rather be put up in the Ritz with free room service and unlimited access to a doctor, or be homeless without a soul to care for you?"

It's a compelling dichotomy of choice, but hardly a conundrum. We, as the animals might if they are capable of such discernment, would all go for the turn-down service, chocolate on the pillow and the remote control unit. It's a fine theory Martel puts forward but it is based on a few slightly shaky premises which will be obvious to the thoughtful reader. It also doesn't take into account the corollary of a good zoo which, mercifully, we seeing fewer and fewer of: a bad one.

We remember how it used to be thought that chimps' tea parties were cute, but even the most doe-eyed romantic among us shudders at the memory of Auckland Zoo's magnificent polar bear striding restlessly back and forth across its white concrete "ice" field looking increasingly helpless and pathetic as the years went by. The thing seemed to be going quietly crazy.

To know they lived longer in captivity than in the wild was hardly reassuring.

A friend of mine insisted he once saw the most interesting and compelling zoo in the world, it was in south China. It had clearly started with the best of intentions but the place had long since fallen in disrepair.

Animals had died off, but rather than have them recycled them as food for others, or disposed of, the zoo had called in the taxidermist and had the damn things stuffed. The place was hilariously ghoulish apparently, lots of slightly fly-blown animals standing motionless in enclosures, their only movement being when a limb rotted off and fell to the dirt.

But in a way it was also an excellent zoo: the nocturnal animals were visible by day; those used to cooler climes didn't crawl off under a ledge when it got hot so you couldn't see them; you could "feed the animals", and kids could stick their hands through the cages without fear of losing a limb. The animals would never be tormented by loud noises, fed inappropriate things by stupid patrons, or command the attention of hard-pressed and over-busy veterinarians. Best of all, you could watch them for hours knowing they weren't going to get bored with you and amble off. When you think about it, in a strange way it was the perfect zoo.