Title: Sport 41: 2013

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, 2014, Wellington

Part of: Sport

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Sport 41: 2013

David Beach

page 243

David Beach

Wellington Zoo 29

The chimpanzees were out and about at
the bottom of the enclosure, where a
high wall gave shelter from the northerly
and as well imbued with a certain extra
poignancy their circumstances. So close
to human, beneath the wall, the intent,
careful figures appeared, if baffled, to
possess the glow of awareness. In the
seeming courtyard seemed the stilled chatter
of courtyards; the chimpanzees—rather more
than confined—looking like their sibling
species enchanted; nothing else required
but that some prince, or seventh daughter of
a seventh daughter, should scale the ramparts.

page 244

Wellington Zoo 30

The chimpanzees weren’t talking, but neither
were they screeching or grunting or hoo-hoo-
hooing. As far as somewhat distant human
ears could tell they had opted, the entire
lot and totally, for silence. Add to
which serene countenances, and movements
graceful-deliberate enough to be
part of a ritual, and the steep path to
the enclosure began to seem a matter
of attaining the high altitudes
favoured by gurus—while one might think a
gaping hole existed in the zoo’s
perimeter-management systems that
levitation not taken into account.

Wellington Zoo 31

Four, maybe five chimpanzees huddled at
the back of a cave, shadowy figures,
unmoored in time. Their cave just across from
the main spectator zone, the chimpanzees,
though so shy, appeared to be on a
stage: as if the demeaning ‘We are like
you’ theatre of tea parties had been
replaced by tableaux which urged ‘You were
like us’: or ‘are like us’, even, visitors
could feel, troglodyte pedigree asserting
itself despite the backdrop Wellington’s
house-dotted hillsides provided; the
question pressing to mind—Why have they
given those chimpanzees such a nice cave?

page 245

Wellington Zoo 32

The chimpanzees looked like they’d just woken
up, zoo opening time maybe meaning
eviction from their sleeping quarters. Too
early for socialising it was more
a time to partake of a few blades of
grass, suck the dew from them as the idea
appeared mainly to be. They were refined
enough not to harvest, then consume a drink
on the same spot, and one had taken its
beverage to the ropes and tyres. Perched upon
a platform it was nuzzling a green fist
at intervals while gazing out over
the—villainously intractable puzzle
to go with starting the day—city.

Wellington Zoo 33

Barrelling single file along the line
of the wall which formed the enclosure’s
northern limit, the four chimpanzees looked
distinctly menacing, on a mission
until they realised there was no mission
and the group broke up: yet something to give
jitters remained—the impress of change,
rearrangements—as if the wall might, like
the monolith in Kubrick’s Odyssey
did humanity’s forebears, be stirring up
these apes; so that this occasion single
file beneath the wall, the next—cognisance
taken of advantages of strength and
agility—a line to the summit.

page 246

Wellington Zoo 34

A chimpanzee had ripped another’s ear
off. But now cages came gilded with fit-
for-humans, ear-attachment-no-problem
medical care—to the chagrin of the
ripper, who a fortnight later was still
glowering at such a trespass upon
the colony’s internal workings. He bossed
the ripped-off to a further away perch,
screeching bloodcurdlingly, however not
subtracting body parts, something indeed
shown to be fairly pointless. Resuming
his bitter ruminations he plucked
a turd from his arse and, with an air
of summing up the situation, ate it.

Wellington Zoo 35

The keeper’s talk was preceded by the
children’s din, a hunting pack falsetto at
which the chimpanzees appeared somewhat
stunned—any thoughts of escape replaced
simply by the hope the children couldn’t
find a way in. It was a question, too,
whether the chimpanzees would even be
able to move to escape: the awareness
that they were on view, and that they were
trapped, always closely related: but here
the very scrutiny itself seemed to hold
them—with, as the baying reached new heights,
the chimpanzees looking set to become
not just statues but outdoor furniture.

page 247

Wellington Zoo 36

Who would have picked the knuckle-wavers to
win? Several chimpanzees were demonstrating
a climbing prowess the bipedal could
only admire. Others, walking, were
models of compact power. To no avail—
human uprightness had fluked intelligence,
chimpanzees left at the gate, without
wit enough even to realise they lacked
wit. A possible exception to this was
the sullen-eyed loner on the cave roof,
staring far off, as if as well as more
than matching the young Marlon Brando in
respect of brawny ease, it had rights to
the line ‘I coulda been a contender’.

Wellington Zoo 37

Out of the dimness of the chimpanzees’
sleeping chamber an infant, or barely
older, showed that two could play at pressing
their nose to the glass, and that it could
do so while hanging upside down, and while
eating. This last was done with an evident
desire to share, the leaves held forth before
being consumed. And now—wonderful gesture
of friendship, the species divide put to
nothing—it laid a palm on the glass. But
then abruptly it decided it was
wasting its good will and began swinging
backwards, flashing its anus, an even
more time-honoured signal amongst primates.