34. Zoo

Tapehead no 34

Tapehead hesitates to describe the first part of State Of The Ark (Barred For Life) as essential viewing (even though it is) for the simple reason that many readers would be better advised not to watch it all.
The series looks at the way zoos are finally responding to the need to help conserve wildlife if only to save the very concept of zoos at the same time.
Barred For Life looks at slum zoos and contains footage, compiled mainly by Zoo-Check, often too disturbing to watch without flinching.
Zoo programmes have often analysed the psychological effect on animals of unimaginative conditions and monotony, and here an elephant is shown walking in circles, endlessly retracing exactly the same footprints. A bored baboon is shown mutilating itself.
But mostly Barred For Life is about senseless cruelty and physical neglect. Sixty miles from the European Commission in Brussels, at the De Limburgse Zoo, the polar bears’ already inadequate water pool is stagnant, infected with their own excrement. A brown bear repeatedly rocks its head wildly back and forward like a badly disturbed mental patient. An old wolf is not only mangy and hobbling but totally blind, stumbling around in circles banging into the bars of its cage.
The shocking thing is that these animals are not locked away but are actually still on display.
The pride we would normally associate with the male lion at De Limburgse (barely able to walk, its eyes lifeless and miserable) has clearly withered away years ago.
Thankfully – eventually – some faith in human nature is provided by the staff at Colchester Zoo where keepers actually hide the bears’ food to preserve the animals’ foraging instincts.
The irony, at the end, is that we probably need zoos of some sort to help make children respect and care for animals more (on evidence) than the previous generation did.
Over in the human zoo that is New York we have, surprisingly, a more positive story with the success of Central |Park East Secondary School in Harlem (Fine Cuts: High School II).
The highlight, in the last half hour, is a 12-year-old called Cillis and his fantastic-looking silver-haired mom who, as he sobs, rebukes him: “If you choose to cry, you should go ahead and cry because, yes, you should feel sad inside. In years to come, we will be dead and who’s gonna be there to look after Cillis ? Cillis is. You can fool people, yes, but it will always show…In the long run, you will suffer.”
Tape all four hours of Fred Wiseman’s High School II and pretend you’re at school in New York. Fantastically slow, and a piece of real life.
The 12-year-old bull-racing jockeys in Sapudi, Eastern Java (Under The Sun: Bull Magic) never seem to go to school. The pride of the islanders, their prize-winning racing bulls are pampered even massaged by their wealthy owners before the races, where kids like Sahmawi hurl down a dust track on two careering young bulls clinging to a bamboo frame wedged between them.
When one village is threatened by a rival magician’s spells, the owner burns verses from the Koran, mixes the ashes into the bulls’ tonic, or gives them a blast of mighty-looking spliff.
Before the races (the most exotic, exciting seconds on TV this week), the islanders stage a beauty contest or cows. To win, the elaborately decorated cows must look up and admire their reflections in a mirror above their heads.
The bulls’ faces are strangely reminiscent of the young jockeys, children that clearly love them: soft and beautiful and with the sort of dignity that, sadly, you won’t find in Barred for Life.


Fine Cut – High School II: Sat 10.40pm-2.30am, BBC2
Under The Sun – Bull Magic: Sun 8pm-8.50pm, BBC2
State Of The Ark – Barred For Life: Thurs, 9.30pm-10.20pm BBC2