Mice work if you can get it

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - James Jef­frey

IT isn’t un­til I take my chil­dren to the rep­tile house that our day at Bangkok zoo sloughs off its in­no­cence. Be­fore that fate­ful mo­ment, an air of frol­ic­some joy reigns. We wan­der among the pink flamin­gos and lan­guid tapirs, toss morsels to the tur­tles and gar­gan­tuan cat­fish in the lake, and laugh with the lady-boys at the zoo restau­rant.

Daisy, who’s clad in one of her ar­ray of princess dresses, and Leo, with his snowy curls and blue eyes, have spent the morn­ing hap­pily torn be­tween the an­tics of the an­i­mals and the adu­la­tion of the Thais, whose ma­nia for chil­dren is so to­tal not even the vapours em­a­nat­ing from Leo’s nappy can keep them at bay. It all goes swimmingly, es­pe­cially once we dis­patch the nappy.

Then we come to the rep­tile house. My wife, Bel, ex­cuses her­self (‘‘You’re the rep­tile fa­natic, you should take the kids in’’) and re­tires to a bench. Luck­ily, Daisy and Leo are as ex­cited as I am and we run through the door into the ser­pen­tar­ium.

We trot along, ad­mir­ing the warm-up act: a row of ponds jostling with tur­tles. Some zoom about un­der­wa­ter and oth­ers fes­toon logs in crowds of choco­late-coloured shells, their lit­tle toes stretched out in the sun­shine. One swims past where Leo has his nose pressed against the glass and looks up into his face with glit­ter­ing yel­low eyes. Leo’s so ex­cited he spends hours af­ter­wards try­ing to re-en­act the mo­ment with sign lan­guage and great flur­ries of tod­dlerese. Next on the pro­gram are the mon­i­tor lizards, all forked tongues and loose-hipped swag­ger; heav­ily ar­moured, ba­nana-munch­ing igua­nas; and vel­vet-skinned, Marty Feld­man-eyed geckos. Then there are the croc­o­diles, star­ing down their fang-fringed muz­zles with a look that sug­gests they’re plot­ting what they’d be get­ting up to if the plate glass of their en­clo­sures were to mag­i­cally de­ma­te­ri­alise.

Then it’s time for the main game: the snakes. Leo’s breath­ing quick­ens in my ear and Daisy’s hand squeezes mine as we en­ter the dim hall. We find our­selves sur­rounded by ser­pents of ev­ery size and hue ly­ing in their cages in piles of mo­tion­less coils, with lit­tle more than the flicker of a tongue to dis­turb the air of tor­por. Leo makes happy coo­ing noises as we move from one dis­play to an­other.

Then it hap­pens. A white mouse scur­ries from a tiny hatch­way into one of the cages, fol­lowed by an­other and an­other un­til a half dozen are scut­tling be­tween a pair of rhi­noc­eros vipers, which stir as if an elec­tric cur­rent has passed through them. One wastes lit­tle time strik­ing at a pass­ing mouse, which runs in cir­cles be­fore oblig­ingly keel­ing over.

The scene is soon be­ing re­peated all around us. May­hem en­sues as the snakes burst into ac­tion, flash­ing across their cages like scaly light­ning bolts, lash­ing at the hap­less mice and, de­pend­ing on the species, con­strict­ing or poi­son­ing.

Ser­pent jaws are care­fully dis­lo­cated as the first mice are swal­lowed, leav­ing lit­tle more than a tell­tale bulge. As the car­nage un­folds, I re­flect that this the frank­est approach I’ve seen a zoo take.

I fig­ure the psy­cho­log­i­cal dam­age to my chil­dren is al­ready done, so an­other 10 min­utes in here won’t make any dif­fer­ence. Even­tu­ally, as an air of bloated sat­is­fac­tion set­tles across the rep­tiles, I tell Daisy and Leo it’s time to leave.

Daisy stares long­ingly at a Burmese python, takes my hand and whis­pers: ‘‘ Daddy, we have to get a pet snake. And some mice.’’

Some par­ents would be hor­ri­fied, but it feels like a case of mis­sion ac­com­plished.

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