Zoo #44 – The Rhinohippoeleraffe

Having spent a few days writing poems for my grandchildren, the zoo poems have taken on a rather more fanciful air.  I hope you will forgive this temporary lack of cynicism…

When all the world was cold as snow.
And ice-cream grew from carrot trees
And camels fluttered on the breeze
There came along a fearsome beast
A creature who, to say the least,
Would not be happy should you laugh;
The Rhinohippoeleraffe.

His eyesight was so very poor;
He had a horn upon his jaw.
He lived in water, eating weed
To satisfy his massive greed.
You may have guessed, I must suppose,
He had a trunk where you’ve a nose.
His fur was filled with blotchy spots.
He looked like he’d got chickenpox.
A neck so long he touched the sky
(He never ever wore a tie)
Completed this ungainly creature.
(In fact it was his nicest feature.)

He had, as you may well conclude,
The disposition to be rude.
His temper frayed so very fast
No wonder that his days have passed
No longer does he walk upon
The greenish land where he belonged.
But then, it couldn’t last for long,
He always was the only one.

If a zoo is going to hold any attraction to a child, it surely has to include a creature or two that only otherwise exists in their imagination…

Zoo #43 – Ptarmigan

A ptarmigan is a bigger partridge
(Though hunters use the same size cartridge)
A little larger than a grouse,
Substantially smaller than a house.
Its fate is often Christmas fare –
It tastes a little like a hare.
Ptarmigans come with a silent ‘P’,
Like toddlers swimming in the sea.

The Ptarmigan is classed as a ‘game bird’ e.g. it has obviously been placed on earth with the simple function of giving the ruling classes something to point their guns at when they’re not starting wars.  It is the ultimate arrogance of man that everything else on this planet has been placed here solely for our benefit and such things that clearly do not fit this criteria, probably need to be eradicated.  Weirdly, the creatures we protect the best are those that we eat.

N.B. the bird was originally known by its Gaelic name ‘Tàrmachan’ until a man called Robert Sibbald (Psibbald?) thought that it would look far more classy if it appeared to have a genus name of Greek origin, so he stuck a silent ‘p’ at the front.  I’ve always been intrigued by silent letters.  How did they get there?  I know (that is, I have been told, and I am trusting enough to believe) that some of them were originally pronounced – e.g. both the ‘k’ and the ‘g’ in the word ‘knight’ were originally spoken – but I cannot begin to imagine how ‘igh’ ended up in so many words.  Some kind of lexicographical aberration.  I’m sure the Greeks would have a word for it…

Zoo #42 – Poison Dart Frog

The poison dart frog has a many-hued coat
That you really wouldn’t want to have stuck in your throat

It has always puzzled me why a tiny little frog should contain enough poison to kill ten fully grown adult humans.  What on earth is nature trying to protect them against?  A dinner party?  Ten French people willing to munch five to a leg?  I understand in nature that bright colours warn of toxicity, so why aren’t butterflies weaponised?  Why do Black Widow Spiders carry enough venom to kill a human, when all they need to see off is a fly?  What’s more, if you’re a spider a spider who has just killed a fly with sufficient venom to bring down a human, how do you then eat it without suffering the consequences?  How did nature choose the venomous?  Why did she miss politicians?  Thank God she did…

BTW in case you ever wondered, a frog in the throat is a simple literal allusion to the fact that you sound croaky.

P.S. I do understand the difference between poisonous and venomous – although I’m not convinced that the frog does.

Zoo #41 – Prey

Who’d want to be a chick or mouse
Within the darkened reptile house
Where neither rat, nor slug, nor louse
Is born with greater cause to grouse.

Yes, cows and sheep share common fate
But here’s the truth I must relate
That neither beast, when comes the date,
Goes live onto the dinner plate.

There is nothing in this world quite as disturbing as seeing chicks hopping around the terrariums in the reptile house, blithely unaware (I hope) that they are there just for one reason, to be eaten.  They are alive only because the snakes will not take dead prey: they need to see it move.  Keep still little chicken: don’t twitch little mouse!  Sooner or later the snake will sleep.  The best thing about going live to the dinner plate is that you might yet have the chance to hop off it.

Zoo #40 – Toucan

Anyone in the zoo can
See the stately toucan.
Anyone in the queue can,
If you join them, you can.

I’m not a kangaroo fan
But what I’d like to do, gran
Is go and ask the zoo man
If we can see the toucan.

I know the cockatoo can
Achieve a proper view ‘nan,
So if he can, then you can,
And if one can, then two can.

I have very little to say about today’s little rhyme.  The last few ‘zoo’ poems have become a little serious and over-considered, so I thought it was time to do something that is just silly: how the ‘zoo’ thread actually started.  Childish silly nonsense.  I should do it more often really.

Zoo #39 – Woodworm

Of all of the things in the zoo you might find
That the woodworm are probably best left behind;
I suppose, in their way, they are fairly benign,
But there’s just this one thing that has stuck in my mind.

In biblical times, when the skies all turned dark
And all of Earth’s creatures lined up in the park –
At least forty days ‘til they could disembark –
What stopped the woodworm from eating the Ark?

It has always puzzled me, this Ark business.  What actually stopped the hunters from eating the hunted?  I wonder if everything was given its own little pen?  That is quite a construction feat.  “Right, so let me just get this straight Noah.  You want a boat that’s big enough to hold two of all of the world’s creatures and you want them all to have separate little compartments.  I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what are you doing about the, er, toilet arrangements?”  Also, I wonder, what were the carnivores fed on?  Was there, perhaps, a second boat, marked ‘Food’, full of all the animals that Noah didn’t really want to save?  If that’s the case, why weren’t the rats on it? 

Forty days and forty nights is a long time to be trapped in a tiny cabin with a member of the opposite sex and nothing much to do: “Oh come on, we might not make it you know.  There are no guarantees.  Besides, what could possibly go wrong?  Precautions?  Of course…”  I admit that my knowledge of boats is fairly limited, but I can’t help but think that if all of the large mammals decided to get it on at the same time the journey might well become a little uncomfortable for the humans on board.  According to the Bible there were eight humans on board – why we got such preferential treatment I do not know – but I imagine that if the humans, too, had their own little cabins, life may have become a little fraught after forty days: “Oh come on, we might not make it you know.  Well yes, I have seen the mess outside and no, of course I can’t expect you to feel at all sensual with that smell, but I don’t know what I can possibly do about it.  Yes, I have opened the windows.  No, I don’t know why the ship is so rocky when the sea is smooth.  Look, can’t we just rejoice that we are two of only four couples left alive?  Well, that’s a little harsh, I must say… You know how much I hate being compared to my brother, particularly in that way…”

As the floods slowly subsided, the Ark landed on mount Ararat, which, I imagine, would have annoyed the heck out of some of the human cargo as it was so far away from all of the ‘sights’ and, while I imagine the positioning was fine for, let’s say, the mountain goats, I can’t help but wonder how the elephants, the rhinos and the hippos went about finding their way down.  Especially since Noah’s family, by then, would have been very hungry and elephants are a very big meal…

Zoo #38 – Polar Bear

There’s seldom a sight that’s more sad to be found
Than a bored polar bear walking round and around:
In the ice of the Arctic, the most fearsome sight,
In the mud of a summer it’s not even white.
A hunter whose power’s respected by all,
Is trapped in a pen with a pond and a ball.
This mightiest hunter in mild summer’s rain
On an iceberg of concrete, going slowly insane.

I’m sure that zoos are not like this now, but many, many years ago, as a child, I was taken to one – long since closed down – and traipsed around the tiny cages full of magnificent creatures with nothing close to enough space and nothing with which to pass the time.  Most of them simply paced backwards and forwards, giving every impression that they were fully aware that, in these conditions, life for them would be mercifully short.  I was very young and my eyes were not open to these horrors until I approached a pen which contained a single polar bear.  The bear in the picture on the wall was a magnificent beast; a pure white knot of muscle and teeth – the world’s largest terrestrial carnivore – power and savage beauty perfectly aligned.  The bear in the compound – a concrete hollow, clearly designed to hold a large amount of water, but containing little more than a bathful at the base of its deepest point, upon which bobbed something that looked suspiciously like a child’s beachball – was thin to the point of emaciation with the yellow/light brown fur that I now know comes with age.  From the base of the basin that was clearly intended to be filled with water rose a concrete iceberg to which the animal was clearly expected to swim in order to rest.  Unfortunately with the pool drained of water the bear, as tall as he was, would have needed ropes and crampons to reach it.  So, head bowed, it just walked round and around its base.  Round and around, round and around, round and around… it was one of the saddest sights I have ever seen and I’m not certain that I have ever fully gotten over it.  I understand that polar bears are one of the few creatures that will actively hunt a human – I can’t say that I blame them…

Zoo #37 – Meerkat

In terms of still observance,
The meerkat’s sheer endurance
Is matched by no insurgents –
They also sell insurance.

Well, this is the way that things work out.  I was quietly patting myself on the back for the above, when suddenly it dawned on me that most of my readers would have not the faintest idea of what I was banging on about.  I will therefore explain.  Some time ago the advertising agency employed by the price comparison website Compare the Market* came up with the slogan Compare the Meerkat and a series of ads based around an anthropomorphic animated family of the aforementioned critters.  The meerkats have gone on to be far more famous than the product they advertise but, crucially – according to Wikipedia – only in the UK and Australia: two places from which the majority of my followers do not come.  Hence the four lines at the head of this post will make sense only to about three of you.  I cannot make any sense of the fact that the catchphrase of ‘Simples’ has seeped into general usage nor why a ‘free’ cuddly toy of a meerkat dressed in a velour smoking jacket would persuade you to change your insurance provider, but that is the way it is with mass hysteria sometimes.  You pays your money and you takes their pick…

*In the interests of sanity I actually prefer to think that this was not the work of the entire agency, but someone they keep locked up in the cellar, fed on raw meat and Guinness.

Anyway, in order to balance out this reckless oversight, here is a poem about an animal much more widely recognised the world over – at least if young men are to be believed**. 


The cougar likes to hunt alone,
Drawn to its prey by constant hunger;
The older female, always prone
To search for males forever younger.

**Generally speaking, they are not.

Zoo # 36 – Lynx

Despite what he thinks
The smell of a lynx
Is really not very alluring.
I’d wager my hat
To smell like a cat
Is something you won’t find assuring.

I’d probably say,
If someone should spray
You over with ‘eau de la feline’
As odd as it seems
The girl of your dreams
Towards you will not make a beeline.

I think it’s a fact
If you hope to attract
A lover, then don’t be too free
With a spray that is meant
To give you the scent
That a bobcat might spray up a tree.

Everywhere I go, I smell Africa – not the country, but the body spray.  It is the smell, not of a generation, but of a decade.  An across-the-board odour of what a boy believes a girl believes a boy should smell like.  In truth, it’s not a horrible smell it’s just… well, how do you know whether the man has made an effort or the restroom smells clean?  (Men’s ‘conveniences’ smell the same the world over, just some of them more so.)  Also, Africa is a wonderful continent, full of all manner of things that it would be great to be associated with, but I am sure, like everywhere else, it has places that you do not want your armpits to smell of.  It’s a very big place.  Surely the makers could be a little more specific: a picturesque area of Tanzania that always smells of lotus blossom; a small town in Mozambique that always reminds me of rose buds.  Also, the pedant in me keeps banging on about the fact that there are no Lynxes in Africa.  Lynx Iberia has a ring to it – it doesn’t, unless it has one of those dinky little collars that people put around their moggy’s neck in order to announce its presence to birds – Lynx Eurasia sounds faintly exotic; Lynx Canada might well appeal to the kind of man who likes to smell of wood, leather and elk, but I think they’d need some special kind of advertising agency to successfully push a scent called Bobcat Musk – unless it was to another bobcat… 

Another Bobcat

Zoo #35 – Somali Wild Ass

Forlorn Somali Wild Ass –
A kind of mini-horse –
Critically endangered,
So in the zoo, of course.

A diet of leaves and grasses,
They barely need to drink,
If they weren’t so bloody tasty
There’d be many more, I think.

So very few are out there,
The African plains bereft,
The humans in the neighbourhood
Eat all that there are left.

They haunt the arid desert,
A landscape filled with rocks;
They look just like a donkey,
But they wear a zebra’s socks.

No longer will you find them
Out in the wild for sure:
They still remain a wild ass,
But Somalian no more.

A new reader to this fol-de-rol (also friend and employer – I know, a charmed life) suggested this particular animal for a rhyme and I said ‘Sure’, without actually knowing anything about them at all.  As usual, Google (after an unproductive, but diverting few minutes on ‘Images’) came to my rescue.  Somali Wild Ass are, as the poem says, critically endangered, with just a few hundred left in the wild, spread, in fact, across Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia.  As far as I can see, their only predator is man.  They are to all intents and purposes a donkey; in fact, according to what I read, all Italian donkeys are descended from them.  (I have to own up here, I had no idea that Italy was a hotbed of donkey eugenics, nor that its donkey population had been kept distinct from that in the rest of Europe; to be honest, I’m surprised the EU even allows it.  Surely there must be some kind of a Euro-donkey edict out there somewhere.  I can only imagine that the Franco/German donkeys are in some way superior – at least, I’m sure they believe they are.)  They are amazing creatures that are supremely adapted to conserve water.  The females maintain a higher temperature than the males so that they sweat less – a trait only otherwise seen in Gwyneth Paltrow.  Visually Somali Wild Ass differ from other donkeys only in that they appear to be wearing pyjama trousers – a throwback to the zebras with which they are closely related.  Presumably where they come from they didn’t need to camouflage anything above grass level.  I will have to research if the lions are particularly tiny in Somalia (if, indeed, they have them*).  They do, of course, have humans and they are extremely unlikely to be deceived by the fact that the Sunday roast is tottering about on invisible legs.  One way or another, it would appear that the Somali Wild Ass has reached a population in the wild, so badly denuded as to be unsustainable and, as such, probably something that your children will be able to see only in the zoo, whilst Wild Ass burger fans will have to be content with the farmed stuff…

*They do.  Also cheetahs and hyenas – so why evolution decided to protect the Wild Ass from the knees down only I have no idea.