The second of an occasional series in which Bugwoman investigates the urban wildlife of other cities.
This week, I have been on holiday in the Austrian Alps, and decided to visit Innsbruck, the unofficial capital of the Tyrol. I found this lizard at the Alpenzoo, which is in the mountains just above the city, and which specializes in Alpine fauna. As usual, I was much more interested in the animals who had occupied the zoo of their own free will than those who were behind bars, and so I spent a lot of time watching the lizards sunbathing and arguing about who owned which rock.
When I wasn’t searching the walls for lizards, I was watching the sparrows who had set up house in the zoo. They had made their nests under the eaves of the newly-built aquarium building:
They used the pond for drinking water:
Furthermore, the Aquarium was right next to the cafe, so the sparrows were soon all around us, checking out the Sachertorte…
However, the sparrows weren’t just after crumbs. They were also hawking for insects just like flycatchers, and were extremely acrobatic, flinging themselves into the air to catch mosquitoes and flies. I have often noticed that, when there are babies in the nest, sparrows cease to be purely gramnivorous (grain-eating) and start to seek out more protein-rich foods. In London Zoo,for example, I’ve seen them stripping the meat from the bones in the vulture cage, .
If there were no croissant-crumbling visitors or flying insects, the sparrows could always ‘borrow’ the food from the other animals:
But although I enjoyed watching the sparrows and the lizards, and although the Alpenzoo is a very well-run zoo, I still find it hard to spend time with animals in captivity. Here, for example, are a pair of ravens in the ‘Ravenry’ at the zoo:
I had seen wild ravens in one of the valleys only the previous day, and watched them fly and tumble over the pine trees, making their distinctive cronking call to one another. They are the very spirit of remote places, and their incarceration in the midst of their wild brethren seemed cruel and unnecessary. After all, if you wanted to see a wild raven you didn’t have to travel far. At one point, a raven landed in the trees a hundred metres away, and started to call.
Am I alone in wondering about the role of zoos? I accept that some do pioneering work in conservation (I’m thinking of the Gerald Durrell zoo in Jersey in particular), and some become sanctuaries for animals when their native habitat is destroyed. But I think zoos often overstate their education and conservation roles, and simply become ‘Cabinets of Curiosity’, places where people can gawk and point and pull faces at animals without learning a single thing that will change their attitude to that creature in the wild.
I speak as someone who has always loved being close to animals, being able to see them, hear them, smell them. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve wanted this to be on more equal terms – I find the thrill of seeing a bird on my birdtable, or a fox in my back garden, much more soul-satisfying than the same creature in a cage, where it has no choice but to interact. I feel that encounters with animals are a privilege, not a right, and that before we take away a creature’s freedom we should be very, very sure that we are doing it in the interests of that animal, not just to increase our visitor figures and our profit.