Hand in hand at London Zoo with a simian friend

YourLifeChoices’ 91-year-old columnist Peter Leith recalls an encounter of the simian kind during a visit to London Zoo back in the 1930s.

In 1936, Mum took my brother Jack, aged nine, and me, aged seven, to Regent’s Park zoo in London. Even in those days it was at the leading edge of zoos around the world. One of its unique and popular features was the children’s zoo.

Apart from baby animals of all kinds was the photographers’ section where children could be photographed with the animal of their choice.

Mum, being a devout feminist, thoroughly approved when a full-grown chimpanzee took us both to a bench and literally gave us a gentle push in the stomach to sit us down. Having done so he/she (we never did find out) moved us apart, squeezed in between us, put an arm around our nervous shoulders and ‘smiled’ at the camera.

The smile on the face of the chimpanzee was much more genuine than the apprehensive smiles on the faces of Jack and myself!

For many years that picture took pride of place in our home, wherever that might be. Mum, with the casual sadism of which she was capable, would, on showing it to visitors, amuse herself and mortify us, by saying things like “Can you pick the chimpanzee?”

To this day, 84 years later, I can well remember how relaxed the chimpanzee was.

I also remember the simian arm round my right shoulder and the hand that dangled below my chin.

I clearly remember, looking from the black hand dangling inches from my chin to my own hand clutched nervously in my lap. They were so incredibly alike. The lines on the fingers and palms, the pads on the finger tips – they were all there.

Later, very much later, I learnt that we humans are superior to ‘the great apes’ because we have a wider range of movements in our thumbs. At least we have something superior about us – and that has got to be better than nothing.

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Written by Peter Leith


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