Tales from the back of the eyelids


It's not easy being director of a large zoo. Quite a few people envy me but almost always they have a romantic and distorted view of what I do. When someone gets to my level it's not about the animals any more. To be honest, I hardly ever see them  - which I regret, because animals were the reason I went into the profession.

It wasn't always like this. When I started out, more than thirty years ago, I was an ordinary keeper but I loved my job and I wouldn't have swapped it for anything in the world. Then I knew most of the animals by name. I can say with confidence, too, that my own primate wards loved and respected me as if I were one of their own. However, life has to move on, none of us can be young forever, and I went into management. As I worked my way up the career ladder, I saw less and less of the animals and became more and more occupied with organising the staff. I was good at organising, which is why, I suppose, I rose to become director.

Strangely enough, these days I don't even spend much time managing people any more. This is something my deputies do for me. Of course, I try to keep myself informed of what is going on. And I must give my formal assent when it comes to new proposals about running the place. But frankly, when it comes to decisions, I am usually presented with a fait accompli. My staff naturally know much more about what is going on than I do. Sometimes I feel that they only pretend that I am the boss and that they are relieved when I am away. Only then, they say to themselves, can they be sure I won't meddle and cause havoc.

You might think, after my telling you this, that I need to grab hold of the reins and firmly reassert my authority. You would be wrong. Meddling is a recipe for disaster. Delegation is the necessary order of things in any organisation. It is the same for every chief executive everywhere in the world. Imagine being the chairman of the railway company. Much as you might like to, you simply don't have much chance to drive the trains yourself. You have other responsibilities. Even if you think you are a better train driver than any of your employees, you have no option but to delegate that job to other people.

Now, if I have delegated all my work to others, then surely I have nothing left to do? I could just relax and enjoy myself. I get this a lot from people. In fact, I am extremely busy. I can describe my function in one word: representation. I spend much of my time representing the zoo at meetings and conferences and also in the media. I spend time - too much time, for my taste - fighting endless battles with the authorities for adequate finances. Without exception politicians and officials regard the animals as either milch cows or the geese that lay golden eggs. In plain English: they see the animals as sources of easy profit. They imagine that not only can the zoo run by itself without subsidies but that it should even hand profits over to the treasury. They are deluding themselves. If our priority is the welfare of the animals – and this always should be our priority – we have to spend money on providing adequate care: on qualified staff, on veterinary resources, on appropriate nutrition and on creating suitable environments for our charges. There's no getting round it: if politicians want a quality zoo for prestige's sake - which they say they want - then they have to pay for it.

In any case, for all the reasons I have mentioned above, I hardly ever get involved in the day to day affairs the zoo. There is one kind of occasion, though, when I simply must get involved. This is when there is a crisis. I have been unlucky enough to have experienced one such event since I took charge. It occurred only a few months after my promotion, and so you could say I was thrown in at the deep end. Two of our orangutans – a young male and a young female – had escaped from the zoo. They had managed to get out because their keeper had failed to follow standard procedures. A number of other members of staff also had been grossly negligent, principally for failing to notice and prevent the animals from leaving the zoo grounds. I was absolutely furious when I found out and immediately sacked everyone responsible.

I took all measures I could to find and recapture the animals, but despite this, for quite some time, my job was on the line. In the end I was lucky. I hung on and now, more than two years later, I am still in charge. The public inquiry into the escape sixteen months later absolved me of any direct blame but revealed many organisational shortcomings. These have all since been rectified. I have upgraded security, hired professional consultants to supervise the zoo and have issued every member of staff with personal alarms.

The inquiry also showed how the animals had been amazingly crafty. It was clear that the systems in place had underestimated their intelligence. By the way everything went so smoothly for them one could easily believe that for weeks they had been planning their escape down to the smallest detail.

What had happened was this. As usual, an hour or so after closing time, one of the keepers went to clean up and leave food. Unless the cage is to be completely washed down, in which case the animals are moved to another compound, the keeper stays behind a grill at one end from where he can put food in a trough and operate a hose. According to the keeper, that day the female orangutan was sitting on the ground next to this grill and was playing with a wallet from which she had pulled a large wad of notes. (Later it was discovered that she had stolen it from a visitor. There is a barrier to prevent people from getting too near to the cage, but this individual, using a bit of dexterity, had crawled over it and then paid for his curiosity by being pickpocketed by an orangutan. He was too embarrassed to notify the staff at the time and only came forward after the escape.)

Anyway, the organutan was waving the money in her hand so tantalisingly close to the rails that the keeper thought that he would be able to swipe it out of her grasp. However, when he put his hand through, the male (who the keeper said appeared from nowhere) grabbed his arm. Before he knew anything his face was pressed tightly against the bars and he was unable to move. Then the female lifted the keys from his pocket and the gate was open. The apes stole his clothes, pushed him into the cage and locked him in. In the cloakroom they found another set of overalls and the two of them sauntered out disguised as members of staff. The zoo was quiet at that hour, but what is astounding is that even though there were cameras covering virtually ever square metre of the premises, no one spotted them leaving.

The moment the keeper was found in the cage early next morning the alarm was raised. Seeing as we couldn't find the apes quickly, I notified the police and with their assistance we began a thorough search of the surroundings. At first we assumed that they were wandering about in the nearby woods and so we surrounded the area with men and dogs and tried to drive the animals into nets at one end. But there was no sign of them. Then we speculated that they might have drowned in the reservoir which borders one side of the zoo. Scuba divers were sent into the murky waters and the bottom was dredged, but nothing was found.

What had happened to the animals remained a mystery for the next half a year and it wasn't until the inquiry that the full truth became known. It transpired that they had been stealing wallets, jewellery and watches in the zoo from members of the public for perhaps years and had managed to amass a small fortune. After the escape, to avoid capture, our orangutans had tried make themselves inconspicuous by assimilating themselves into human society. They had rented a small apartment on the fifth floor of a high rise block on a housing estate near the edge of town. The flat was in a poor condition and to make it habitable many things had to be done. The bathroom needed retiling, the walls replastering and the floors, which had been covered with cheap linoleum, needed to be either relaid or carpetted. They spent a couple of weeks putting things into order. It was hard work but both apes got down to the chores with energy and enthusiasm. At that stage they both were bubbling with optimism and were looking forward to their new future.

Pretty soon, however, they began to have financial problems. Neither of them had ever had to learn how to budget and money just slipped through their fingers. They were extravagant and wasteful. They loved gadgets which they bought on impulse and which, after a day or two when they got bored with them, would never use again. They filled their apartment with expensive trinkets and kitschy pictures, which all together cost a bomb. They realised far too late that they had frittered away nearly all their reserves and that they couldn't pay their debts.

In short, they had to learn the hard way. The male had no option but to look for work. At the beginning he set his sights too high and applied for all kinds of managerial positions. Of course, he only received rejections. Desperate circumstances eventually forced him to search around for odd jobs. He would scour the building sites or just go knocking on doors, to see if anyone wanted something done. He wasn't choosy. He variously worked as a hoddie, a demolition worker, a stevedore, and a dishwasher. His colleagues later testified that he was polite, got on well with everyone, was absolutely honest but was not suited to the work. He would make mistakes and when the workload built up he would get left behind. Needless to say, he wasn't able to hold on to any of these jobs for long.

Whenever he was sacked there was always trouble waiting for him at home. She would call him a lazy dope or a good-for-nothing layabout. Rather than simply ignoring such remarks (as wise husbands do) he would rise to the bait, which always resulted in furious rows, and which sometimes ended up with the throwing and breaking of crockery. If they had had different characters they might have been reconciled after such storms blew over, but both were inclined to harbour grudges and so tensions would remain high until another job was found. The periods of searching and waiting were miserable. Whenever a new job came up they would be driven on with fresh euphoria. This time it was going to work out, they told themselves.

Inevitably, it didn't. Soon there were no jobs to be had and all hope seemed to evaporate. At some point in November they thought they hit rock bottom. There was next to nothing to eat, the landlord was threatening eviction if he didn't receive the back rent and the electricity board had given notice that the power would be cut off unless outstanding debts were paid. The male took to wandering the streets aimlessly in the freezing cold – better to suffer the bad weather than the oppressive atmosphere at home, he thought. One witness at the inquiry told us that she saw him every day for weeks by the entrance to an underground train station. He was begging. He would sit huddled up on the cold concrete floor, wrapped up in a dirty old coat, and next to him he had a plastic cup with some small change in it. He had made a sign out of a piece of cardboard, on which was written, in shaky handwriting:




When he returned home, late at night, cold, hungry and with only a handful of extra coins, he would have to face another round of scolding.

"If it weren't for me," she would reproach him, "you wouldn't have anything to eat at all. Even so, all we have are the leaves and rotten fruit I pick up from the around the bins at the greengrocers." At this point she would pause and look at him angrily, to give him an opportunity to reply. But by now he was too tired and disheartened to put up any kind of defence and would just look sullenly at her. Nevertheless she would continue the attack.

"Is this any kind of a life?" she would say. "Why-oh-why didn't we stay in the zoo? We had everything we needed there: a nice home, plenty of good food, vets, medicines, safety. We didn't have any worries. Why did I ever let you persuade me to escape? That was a hare-brained idea, if there ever was one. What have we got here? Nothing!"

"Freedom," he would say wearily. "We've got freedom."

"What good's freedom if we haven't got anything to eat?" she would snap. At that he would abuptly turn his back on her and go to sleep, frustrating her plan to have a good quarrel.

Should we have any sympathy for the apes because of the hard times they went through? I don't think so. The female had been right: if they had stayed in the zoo, they would have had all their needs and comforts seen to. Instead, in this farcical attempt to lead independent lives, they had only caused themselves and the zoo a lot of trouble. They weren't qualified to look after themselves and they should have known this. If they had been brought up in the wild, they would have been in a different position – but there they would have been plagued by parasites and diseases and could easily have been killed before adulthood by predators or poachers. As it was, they had never known any other life than the zoo and so were unsuited both to the jungle and to human society.

But, you know, in spite of everything, somewhere deep inside I have a sneaking admiration for them. They had remarkable determination and refused to give up even in the face of enormous difficulties. In one way they were heroes, in another they were like little children. They had boundless faith in their ability to succeed but really it was their naivity which made them completely blind to their own limitations. In every way they tried to be humans and amazingly believed that people would be fooled into thinking they really were humans. They thought that all they needed to do was to be polite and decent and soon they would be accepted.

The first rule - they told themselves - was to greet the neighbours in a friendly way whenever they saw them. Later, once the neighbours got used to their being around, it was important to start up a bit of small talk with them on harmless topics, such as the high price of diamonds on the international markets. (The male had read a few articles on this subject in the newspapers and concluded it must be a serious issue.) At this point their imaginations ran wild: next, they would invite the neighbours round for tea and sandwiches. In turn the neighbours would invite them for a bridge playing evening or perhaps to their country cottage for a barbeque. Soon they would have a network of friends and they would have social standing. One day, many years from now, they would send their children to the best schools, he would be a respected member of the golf club and she would be on the board of a committee which raised funds for charity.

I don't need to say all this was fantasy. They had got their ideas on how humans behave from television and, as we all know, reality is much harder. Success is not found through niceness but through its opposite – nastiness. Their friendly smiles would be met with frowns or even outright hostility. Initially they were baffled by people's reaction to them, but assumed that everyone is wary of strangers and that people would eventually warm to them when they got to know them a little bit. They miscalculated because they failed to understand one fundamental truth: no orangutan, with its orange hair sticking out from all over its body, with its permanently puffed-out mouth, flat nose, long arms and bandy legs, can for any length of time pass for a human being, no matter how hard it tries. This fact is self-evident to everyone except to our pair, who were completely oblivious of it.

How, then, did they stay at liberty for so long? The answer is because their housing estate was full of foreign workers, nearly all of whom were illegal immigrants. Such people avoid drawing attention to themselves in case they are identified and deported. A murder would make them look the other way; in contrast, a couple of orangutans out on a stroll might make them stare in confusion. But neither event would be enough to prompt them to report anything to the police. The apes, then, lived on in a delusion that eventually they would be accepted by their neighbours. In turn, the neighbours steadfastly ignored them. In other words, out of fear of being detected themselves, the foreigners unnecessarily delayed the orangutans' own detection for many months.

Finally it was a postwoman who cut short the orangutans' journey of self-deception. Ironically the end came just when things were just beginning to look up. The male had just got himself a well-paid and respectable job where it didn't matter how many mistakes he made. He had started working for the meteorological office. There he could misforecast the weather as much as he liked, knowing that he would never get into trouble for it. The money was coming in, and love and harmony returned to the home. But however happy their future now looked, it was not destined to be.

One day, on her morning delivery round, the postwoman saw the female walking back to the apartment with some heavy bags, presumably on the way back from shopping. It struck the woman as being very odd that the ape was out and about by itself. If the animal was a pet, she thought, it ought to be accompanied by someone. Her suspicions raised in this way, she secretly followed the ape back to its apartment. When the ape had let itself in and closed the door, the postwoman made a mental note of the floor and number of the flat and then telephoned the zoo.

When I received the news, I immediately phoned the police and made my way to the housing estate. By the time I arrived some plain-clothed police officers were already at the scene and were discreetly monitoring the comings and goings at the building. Unfortunately someone had tipped off the press and they had also appeared with their cameras and equipment. Their obstrusiveness was jeopardising the covertness of the operation and so the commanding officer had them moved back to a more concealed location. The commander was pleased to see that I personally had turned up as he felt he needed expert advice on handling the animals. I suggested that I should follow his men in as they raided the apartment and this was immediately agreed to. As we were discussing the strategy of the assault, two trucks pulled up near us and a special squad of commandos in body armour and armed with stun guns piled out of the vehicles and stationed themselves in front of all entrances to the building. I tacked myself onto the back of the main group and on the given signal we moved inside.

The commandos swept swifty up to the fifth floor. I followed in the rear. Outside the flat they took a moment to position themselves. The one at the front paused for a second before giving the door a well-aimed kick. It swung open and four commandos ran into the flat, hollering "Police! Drop to the floor!"

The female, caught completely by surprise, was cooking in the kitchen. She didn't put up any resistance. She was handcuffed and carted off downstairs, where she was put in a waiting van and whisked off back to the zoo. But there was no sign of the male. There was some debate as what to do next, but I explained to the commander that as orangutans are territorial animals, it was likely that the male would return to his lair unless he sensed danger. I suggested that I should try to deal with him alone, to avoid causing him unnecessary stress, but that a back up should be at the ready outside the flat in case there would be trouble. The commander agreed and orders were given to clear up the mess which had been made in the flat during the raid and to repair the lock on the door.

I sat myself down at the kitchen table and waited. About an hour later I heard the door open and the orangutan padding down the corridor. His jaw fell when he saw me crosslegged on the chair.

"Benny, we have to go back..." I started to say.

But before I had finished my sentence, he had turned around and was bounding out towards the door. I leapt up, ran after him and brought him down with a rugby tackle. I turned him on his back, sat on his chest and pinned his shoulders to the ground with my legs. Orangutans are usually smaller than humans and do not have such quick reactions and therefore can normally be overpowered without difficulty. Unable to move under me, he suddenly burst into tears. What was this terrible disease he had had from birth that made him into an orangutan and stopped him from being human? Why couldn't he get rid of it? All he had ever wanted in his life, he cried, was to be free as humans beings are. Why should he be imprisoned for an accident of nature that was not his fault?

As he spoke, I began to feel sorry for him. I suppose he must have recognised the expression on my face, because he began to plead with me.

"Please let me go. All I want is freedom. I won't harm anyone. I just want to live my own life in the way I choose."

You know, as he looked at me with his round black eyes, I felt his pain as if I were feeling it myself. There he was, on the brink of losing the one thing he had always strived for, and for some reason I felt connected to him. I felt his anguish flow into me. It was a devastating emotion: the realisation that the most cherished hope was just about to be extinguished forever. How could I help him and make the pain disappear? All I would have to do is to release him. He could climb out of the window and he, being arboreal by nature, would have no trouble clambering down the drainpipe. I could tell the police that we had struggled, that he had slipped out of my grasp and had got away. What about the consequences for me? Nothing, really. I would have to face a bit of criticism that I should have left the recapture to others, that's all.

That's all, but it's also the whole point. I am a director of a zoo, a man with considerable responsibility. I couldn't just reject everything I had stood for up till then. Outside there were television cameras and the whole country was waiting and expecting me to do my job. I felt sorry for him, but many people were depending on me. What's more important – the feelings of one ape or my duty to society as a whole? Could you really expect me to betray everyone just for the sake of one orangutan?

I called to the commandos outside who came in and hauled off the orangutan. After everyone had left, I stayed in the apartment alone. For some moments I surveyed the kitchen where, just minutes before, the drama had ended. The kitchen unit's work surfaces were made of imitation red marble. I wandered into the corridor. It was painted bright green. I peered into the bathroom. It was tiled in mauve. Then I opened the door of the bedroom. A blue water bed covered most of the floor. I walked into the living room. The three piece suite was upholstered in orange coloured leather. "What appalling taste!" I thought. As I looked around, picking up and examining the trinkets on the shelves, I mused on how the orangutans must have lived in their few months of freedom. Thinking like this made me feel sad, but it was that kind of calm, enjoyable, philosophical sadness which fills a person when alone and contemplating.

I went through a door on the side into a small study. Without really thinking about what I was doing, I sat down by the computer. All of a sudden a surge of contentment welled up in me. I had had a brilliant idea! I have always wanted to be a writer. Throughout my adult life I have been writing short stories as a hobby. Short stories are fine in their own way but a writer can only ever earn proper recognition by writing novels. What to write about, though? I could never find any theme complex enough. Now at last, though, the two orangutans had given me more than enough material to write the novel I had always dreamed of writing. My hands hovered indecisively for a while over the keyboard. I typed out the title: "Freedom". Then the words began to flow quicky and easily. "It's not easy being director of a large zoo," I wrote. "Quite a few people envy me but almost always they have a romantic and distorted view of what I do. When someone gets to my level it's not about the animals any more.."

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