Nocturnal House London Zoo

As a child, I was very into ‘Africa’ and ‘Jungle’.  It probably stemmed from the fact my mother spent time in East Africa as a refugee during the war, and sometimes told tales of life in the refugee camp – references to lions and natives and flies and odd words learned in Swahili.

Then of course there was my general interest in animals and natural history, fuelled by books and films like The Jungle Book, Tarzan and Daktari.

At one point I knew 100 words in Swahili!  At one point I had a scrapbook with pictures of Mount Kilimanjaro and giraffes and herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plains!

To date I have still never been on safari, a fact which I must soon remedy.  And I think it was a passing phase, I grew out of it pretty early.  But there was definitely a period where I was very keen on visiting zoos, and on one such visit, as a child or a teenager, I discovered, and was profoundly affected by, the nocturnal house at London Zoo.

It’s just a building – but pretty unlike any other.  It’s dark inside, very dark when you first walk in, but then your eyes adjust gradually and you can see what there is to see.

Animal enclosures, of course, behind glass.  Containing various creatures – mainly small mammals – that are naturally only active at night.  Their world has been turned upside down, they’ve been tricked for our amusement – of course their night has been turned into day so that we can see them scurrying and eating and generally ‘behaving’ in animal-like ways, within the confines and limits of their artificial little worlds.

Nocturnal mammals.  Lemurs, bushbabies, armadillos, possums, porcupines, mink, mouse, flying squirrel, ocelot.  I don’t remember what was in there exactly.  (More recently I know I saw Aye-Ayes in another nocturnal house, at Jersey Zoo – very fascinating and worth patiently waiting for them to appear, when no-one else could be bothered.)

But as well as what there was to see, an aspect of the London Zoo nocturnal house which I discovered all those years ago, was what there was to hear.  Now I’m not sure, but I can’t really imagine that the sounds to be heard were natural and came from the animals confined within.  I think it must have been a recording of the night sounds of the jungle.

It was this recording, combined perhaps with its context, that so affected me.

And why?  Very possibly because I’m a primate and there’s some sort of ancient genetic memory that finds such sounds somehow familiar, and of course innately frightening.  Well I know it’s not really a genetic memory, but how else can you explain how it makes you FEEL, when as a child you suddenly hear these weird and wonderful natural sounds that you can’t possibly have heard before, but which somehow speak to you so deeply?

A similar mystery presents itself whenever I walk into a hot-house full of plants, like the palm house at Kew Gardens, or a greenhouse in Cannon Hill Park I used to visit regularly whilst living in Birmingham.  I wasn’t brought up in ‘the tropics’, I’ve only ever lived in temperate and non-humid climates.  But something, not in your mind, but in your body, just KNOWS something about that hot, humid atmosphere – recognises it.  Your mind, and almost your humanity, are bypassed.  Your soul and your very cells think – I’ve known this, this feels familiar, this feels right, I belong here.

Climbing through the trees, swinging through the branches, scurrying through the leaf litter.

The sounds of the nocturnal house made me feel that way.

In subsequent years I would seek out rainforest recordings, and listen to them sometimes in the dark – once lying in the bath, I remember, with the lights off, like some wild creature reclining in a jungle pool.

And the sounds always elicited in me a kind of primeval excitement, an instinctive arousal that was almost carnal.  A wildness, a readiness, a oneness with nature and with life.

Maybe it was just youth, and unfamiliarity with the world, and the excitement of the different and the unknown.  Probably when I go on safari and listen to the night sounds of the wild for real, they will have no such effect – I will have been jaded by real life and the modern world.

But then again, maybe not.  Maybe I will fall in love with the jungle again, and never wish to return home – or run away into it!

I was always fascinated by those tales of children brought up by wild animals, and discovered as savages – apparently they do happen for real, not just in fiction.

Maybe I shall be standing one day, at night, on the edge of a wilderness, and the night sounds and the humid heat will call to me and I will disappear into the trees, to live, as Kipling would have it, by the Law of the Jungle!

‘As old and as true as the sky.’

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