The butterfly enclosure is not quite as I remember it: I’m surprised to find it where it is, immediately next to an imitation Thai village in the middle of the Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) enclosure; I do not recall at all having to enter the butterfly enclosure through heavy black plastic curtains, as if entering an abattoir or a butcher’s fridge.
I am at the Melbourne Zoo. I’ve been here only once before, nearly two years ago, in summer when the city was hot and humid. I had a beard then and at the sight of me one of the male Gibbons (Hylobatidae) in the zoo’s carefully constructed Gibbon enclosure became hysterical, gaping and screaming at me, passing me again and again to bare its teeth. My friend and I laughed, and joked about the Gibbon’s anger; we were on the right side of the glass, and laughter came easily. We spent the afternoon at the zoo. It was a weekday, and not too busy. I had never been to the zoo before; my friend, a Melbournian by birth and upbringing, had not been for a long time.
Now I’m back, and I’m reacquainting myself with favourite animals, and rediscovering animals that I’d forgotten about or that had not been on display the last time I was here. On my previous visit the seal pool had been under construction; now it is built, and I and the friends who are with me now step into the dark enclosed space and gasp in astonishment at the grace and effortless movement of the Australian Fur-seals (Arctocephalus pusillus) as they swim beneath the artificial waves. I’ve only ever seen them on land before, where they are slow and ungainly; beneath the water they are a different animal entirely, and I can barely tear my eyes away from them. I wonder if there can be a more beautiful sight than a seal or a sea-lion at swim.
Elsewhere we wonder why the Bongos (Tragelaphus eurycerus), antelopes described on the plaque by their enclosure as living in the dense undergrowth of African rainforest, have been housed in an environment that looks more like the savannah. We linger by the Small-clawed Otters (Aonyx cinerea), watching them play and swim and tumble over one-another; after my friends move on I stay a little longer, and notice that one of the Otters, the one on the bottom of each fight, has a tail that is raw with cuts and bites and scars. Suddenly it seems doubly imprisoned: caged, and persecuted by its fellows.
Before entering the Elephant enclosure, which is surrounded by dense bamboo, we pass by an historical monument: a recreation of the zoo’s original Tiger (Panthera tigris) cage. Enchanted by the animals, aware that with afternoon commitments my time at the zoo is rapidly running out, I try not to think of the generations of animals that lived and died pacing back and forth in bare concrete cells, with nothing to hide behind but bars. Earlier we had seen the zoo’s current Tigers, surrounded by a replica forest, and for a moment I had been unable to tell if they were in the cage we were peering into, or in the next cage along: the lines of the bars dissolved into the foliage. Only the Tigers know.
As we pass the Snow Leopards (Panthera uncia) my friends’ young son says “cat”. It is his third word. Later, holding him while my friends eat lunch, I try to impress upon him other words: “Bird”; “Seagull”; but it is half-hearted, and I disguise my efforts as an attempt to amuse my friends. Earlier my friends and I had watched a baby elephant tease a family of Wood Ducks (Chenonetta jubata), the two parent birds herding their dozen or so ducklings from side to side of the small pond in the elephant’s enclosure, the ducklings paddling desperately to keep between their parents. The elephant grew bored of the ducks and instead began exploring its environment, the environment given to it: it clambered up onto some low rocks, and when it bent its leg awkwardly and raised itself on its knees onto the rocks I was reminded of my own efforts to clamber up onto raised surfaces. I have just turned thirty-three; though I am still young my body has already peaked and begun to deteriorate.
Time is running out. It is twelve-thirty already. I insist that we go to the Butterfly enclosure. It is not as I remember it: the warmth inside is heavier, denser, more oppressive, and though I’m compelled to linger amid the Butterflies I’m not unhappy when we emerge again into the cool early-spring air. It’s a Sunday, and the zoo is crowded: on buying my ticket I’d asked the woman at the ticket booth if it had been a busy day. “Not so far” she’d said; but when I’d bought my ticket it had only been ten-thirty, and there was still plenty of time for crowds to arrive. Walking through the zoo just after entering, waiting for my friends to join me, had almost been like walking through a park or garden; but then as I passed a cage three African Hunting Dogs (Lycaon pictus) trotted past briskly, on the other side of the bars, and I felt an extraordinary excitement, some ancestral thrill of danger tempered by the realisation of my complete safety.
The feeling inside the Butterfly enclosure is something entirely different: joy, wonder, astonishment. These are not primal instincts; or if they are, they are instincts that perhaps date back to the moment when humanity first began to create culture; they are almost indecipherable instincts towards the recognition of beauty. Stepping into the Butterfly enclosure is stepping into a world that humans have built and designed almost to exclude themselves: it is a world built and designed to make ourselves feel secondary. The heat and stillness of the enclosure suits the butterflies in their brief lives, and there are so many in such a small space that my friends and I joke that the exit should have a mirror, so that visitors can check themselves for Butterflies before leaving. No butterflies land on us, to our regret, but they land on seemingly everything else: on leaves, on rails, on the many colourful hexagonal feeders placed throughout the enclosure. A young intellectually disabled woman shows off the prim brown Butterfly that has landed on her hat: she is carrying the hat in her hand, not daring to put it back on her head; she walks through the enclosure and shows everybody she meets. Her hat has a brown foam elephant’s trunk protruding from the cap.
The Butterfly enclosure is full of people, it is the most popular exhibit at the zoo. They talk and laugh and gasp and the more time they spend in the enclosure the more Butterflies they see. I am the same, and though I try to hold a conversation with my friends it is constantly interrupted by my own excited pointing and exulting as I see another extraordinary insect: this one green; this one blue; this one yellow. When I was a child there were only two or three Butterflies that visited my parents’ garden, and thus entered my life; one was the Cabbage White Butterfly (Pieris rapae) and it was the first animal I ever learned to revile, though I never knew why. Some gardener’s lore had been passed down in feeling from generation to generation, but the information had gaps: I hated the Cabbage White, but only because everybody I knew who could identify it and name it hated it too.
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org