For the Observer Magazine of 18 March 1973, Anna Pavord went to talk to several ‘zoo men’, some of whom were much closer to their charges than others (‘Animals and their keepers’).
Take Bill Crompton, who slept every night for three months in the same cage as a young female elephant. ‘He has since returned home,’ noted Pavord (much to the relief of his wife). Anna, the young Indian elephant in question, had come to London Zoo too young, said Crompton. ‘In the wild they are with their parents much longer.’ Deciding the only thing to do was to stay and sleep with her, he found that each night Anna had ‘her trunk over my legs so I didn’t slip away in the night’.
But why elephants? ‘They don’t bite. I don’t much care for things that bite.’ Fair enough. And it was just as well Anna didn’t roll over in the hay. Or snore.
Also spare a thought for Mike Colbourne looking after the gorillas at Bristol zoo. His arrival in the cage each day was something of a relief to Delilah, Daniel’s mother. She could offload the baby and play with Caroline, her friend next door. Mike was basically a gorilla babysitter with the upshot being that Samson, Delilah’s mate, was kept next door. ‘He’s likely to view me as a potential rival and beat me up,’ said Colbourne.
Philip Glasier owned a falconry centre in Gloucestershire and had been a falcon expert for 50 years. He admitted that the methods of falconry hadn’t changed much in 4,000 years, starting with the taming. ‘You’ve got to treat it quietly, gently and patiently.’ Pavord was utterly captivated (so to speak) by their relationship: ‘Man and bird are bound in a curiously hypnotic rhythm.’
Harry Stevens, meanwhile, the keeper in charge of the rhinos at Whipsnade, was far less sentimental about his job. ‘I don’t really think they’ve got much brain. Rustle a feed bag and they’ll follow you anywhere.’