I took my daughter to Edinburgh Zoo yesterday. I wouldn’t say that this is a regular occurrence, but we go once in a while and when we do we always follow the same routine: get there early, before the crowds, and head straight up to the top of the hill to see the lions.
There is something very atmospheric about walking through a quiet zoo. I don’t know if you have ever tried it, but the paths are very still and the carefully designed enclosures are busy with rustlings and scurryings, as the animals are released from their overnight accommodation to eat their breakfast in the peace of the morning.
It’s just you, them and the promise of the day ahead.
It was raining when we arrived, but this did not deter the jaguar, which watched us steadily from the shelter of a large barrel as we walked past, nor the tiger, which was sprawled comfortably on the highest ledge in its cage, surveying the world. It turned its head towards us as we trudged up the path. I knew that it was taking note.
Then we reached the lions. We could only see one – the male – and he had not yet been released from his indoor enclosure. He was not happy about it, or about the gaggle of giggling teenage girls who were taking photos through the large picture window that separated us from him. He was pacing before it, tail lashing; a magnificent beast with a head three times the size of mine. The window ledge barely reached his thighs.
We left the girls to it and came back when all was quiet. The lion had stopped pacing. He was standing quite still, next to the window. We stopped dead in the entrance way as he lifted his head and caught us in his unblinking, yellow gaze. He was four feet away, if that, and there was nobody around but us.
It was one of those moments where your skin crawls with warning and a hint of unleashed violence electrifies the air.
“I could have you in a heartbeat,” came the silent message.
“I know,” was my unspoken response.
Suffice it to say, we did not outface the lion. We left. Quickly. When it comes to lions, sometimes crowds are better after all…