Wellington Zoo


The zoo was a place of boxes within 
boxes, particularly at feeding 
time—and while a keeper strewed fruit and 
vegetables about the baboon enclosure, 
the troop, thirty or more, close-confined in 
a holding pen, were demonstrating an 
eagerness to exit which suggested 
that ‘to go from a smaller to a larger 
box’ could stand as a definition of 
freedom—and the rush out, too, a glorious 
casting off of shackles, no less for 
the scramble for the food, understood 
as the looting hardly to be avoided 
immediately after liberation. 


The ostrich, on the hunt for bugs, appeared 
out to earn the epithet ‘the poor 
zoo’s elephant’, its neck a worthy 
alternative marvel to the trunk, such 
strength and flexibility shown as the 
no-nonsense killer delivered rapid- 
action, bunker-busting pecks, the slaughter 
upon the bug population so grievous 
that for an adequate comparison one 
might feel drawn to whales and their plankton 
eating, even while coming to the view 
that with the ground at the birds’ feet a 
perpetual smorgasbord the economic 
case for ostriches was unassailable. 


However essential a part of a 
zoo’s charter keeping the animals well- 
nourished, this could diminish the spectacle 
at feeding time, as was being made clear by 
a dingo, sleek, obviously never needed 
to hunt a day in its life, which seemed 
ready to disappoint for ever the 
small crowd waiting to watch it tuck into 
a hair, hide and all slab of meat, and only 
at last closing its jaws upon the meal 
to move it to another spot, from where 
the dingo favouring its audience with 
an unruffled grin that suggested its 
hunting skills still present, just sublimated. 


The lion was chomping away upon a 
rather wretchedly small carcass, a rabbit’s 
possibly, which however still needed 
a bit of effort—when, its jaws open, 
working to reduce some knotty portion, 
what appeared to be an eye peeped out from 
the fearsome maw—and a spectator could 
but identify with an eye—and so 
(more than just a caged animal prompting 
reflections on how humans are constrained) 
be confronted by the cage of human 
mortality—as, thunderous purring 
the soundtrack to oblivion, for a 
few moments longer the light, then nothing. 


Zoo staff were comforting (and restraining) 
the distraught parents. Beyond dispute, 
a sign clearly warned that if you fed the 
animals you would be fed to the 
animals. Major beneficiaries of 
this policy—and morale seemingly quite 
restored after the damage done it by 
installation of a ‘close encounters’ 
window—the lions were roaring lustily 
in front of the (packed) observation 
chamber. Two keepers seized the boy, ready to 
swing him over the rail. ‘I won’t feed the 
animals any more,’ he hollered, a quite 
transparent lie in the circumstances. 

David Beach lives in Wellington. He has written four collections of sonnets, all published by Victoria University Press. He is currently working on a fifth collection.

Beach comments: ‘A zoo sequence obviously needs some poems with animals eating. But when, towards the end of the sequence, I came to write this group of poems, I never seemed to be able to get to the enclosures at feeding time. And the animals generally just seemed to lose their appetite at the sight of me. The sonnet about the dingo and how it teases the spectators by refusing to start its meal, rather sums up the state of mind I was put in, wandering about the zoo muttering under my breath ‘Eat, damn you, eat’.

‘And the baboon sonnet actually stems from a scene from one of my first visits to the zoo. Then when, to refresh my memory, a couple of times I tried to catch the baboons at feeding time again, of course I failed – probably just as well, with imperfect recollection quite a good substitute for imagination.’

Poem source details >


Victoria University Press author page