Mice work if you can get it
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.