Without doubt, Sydney’s Taronga Zoo is one of the most spectacular zoos in the world. Situated right on the harbour, it enjoys breathtaking views over the city, the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge.
Because it’s only a short walk from our Sydney apartment to the zoo, I go there often either to write, or just to stroll through the beautiful grounds. As you can imagine, I have many friends I like to visit along the way… Here are a few of them; look.
My favourite time is early in the morning before the tourists arrive. I have done this for many years, and have been fortunate to befriend some of keepers. A zoo is an amazing place. It’s a small, self-contained community – just like a village I suppose – where everyone knows everyone else’s business, where there are few secrets, lots of gossip and many amazing stories … Here’s one of them:
Just like zoos everywhere, Taronga is a popular destination for school excursions. Not a day goes past without busloads of excited schoolkids swarming over the grounds, busily taking notes and photos for their projects. At times their behaviour leaves much to be desired, and the exasperated teachers find it difficult to keep them under control.
On that memorable morning, which is now etched into Taronga’s colourful history and has made headlines in the local paper, a group excited 12-year- olds was making its way through the zoo. The kids had travelled for hours in a hot, crowded bus, and it was time to have fun …
Jimmy, a tall, skinny lad with a freckled face and curly red hair, had been warned. He had a fearsome reputation for pranks, and had made teasing the girls in his class into an art form. He had spent more time on detention than in the classroom. ‘Listen here, Jimmy, if there’s the slightest bit of trouble, this is definitely your last excursion,’ the teacher had told him in the bus. ‘Do you understand?’
‘Yes Miss,’ said Jimmy, grinning infuriatingly. The teacher didn’t believe him. Just two weeks earlier, 3 girls had fallen into a duck pond during an excursion, and the finger of blame was pointing squarely at Jimmy as usual. However, Jimmy was a resourceful chap who knew how to cover his tracks. Once again, there was no proof, only suspicion…
‘I’ll be watching you …’
Elsa, the old lioness, was the matriarch of the pride. She occupied the best spot – a heated rock – in the lions’ enclosure, and enjoyed the respect due to a senior member of the popular African exhibit during her twilight years. On that particular morning, she was dozing on her rock as usual and ignored the excited schoolchildren on the other side of the fence. The enclosure directly next to hers belonged to the springboks, the one behind her to the zebras and the giraffes.
Bored, and feeling hot and hungry, Jimmy stood right at the back, well away from the giggling girls taking notes and asking questions about the lions. He took off his backpack and pulled out his lunch; sandwiches his mother had made for him and neatly packed in a brown paper bag. He wolfed down his sandwich, looked at the paper bag in his hand and smiled. He saw that teacher was busy with the girls. Perfect, he thought, the coast was clear.
The springbok, a splendid male in his prime, stood proudly on top of his favourite rock right next to the lions’ enclosure, and was surveying his domain. Life in the zoo was good. His mortal enemy – the lion – was asleep next door, the sun was shining and the keepers would soon bring fresh feed. Life was good indeed. That’s when it happened. A loud bang cut through the stillness of the morning like a gunshot, destroying the peace of the lovely day. Startled by the unexpected sound, the springbok panicked. He did what springboks do; he jumped. Not just any jump, but a jump so powerful and high that it carried him right over the electric fence.
Elsa heard it too. Bang! Sleepily, she opened her eyes, but at first couldn’t quite believe what she saw. That arrogant springbok from next door who had mocked her for years was right there in front of her! Long forgotten memories of daring hunts in the Serengeti came flooding back with alarming clarity. Elsa kept staring at the terrified springbok staring back at her. Astonishment met fear. Elsa felt her claws straighten and her thigh muscles twitch. After that, everything happened very fast. Elsa moved forward with lightning speed. Before the springbok could move away, Elsa had him by the throat.
At first, there was stunned silence among the mesmerised schoolkids watching Elsa’s every move. Then the screaming started – high-pitched and hysterical – as the happy lioness began to rip its kill apart right there in front of them, turning the rock crimson with blood.
‘I know it was you,’ said the exasperated teacher, looking sternly at Jimmy. ‘This is your paper bag; admit it.’ Smiling infuriatingly, Jimmy shook his head. ‘What have you got to say?’ demanded the teacher, barely able to speak.
‘I do like the zoo,’ replied Jimmy. ‘Are we coming again, Miss?’
Jimmy had done what most of us had done once or twice as kids to startle grandmothers, aunts or little sisters. He had blown up the paper bag like a balloon and then crushed it, making it pop with a loud bang.
3 months later, Elsa passed away peacefully in her sleep. The vet was certain he could detect a smile on the old girl’s face. Perhaps he was right, or perhaps he just remembered the springbok story … We’ll never know.