The Berlin Diaries – Prostitutes and Orangutans

A week ago today I went to the zoo with my fellow fresh Berliner Victoria. Dave, the stoned Ron to our skint Harry and Hermione, was supposed to join us at 1pm. However, he didn’t show, mostly for financial reasons. It is rather hard to make plans with Dave, as his phone barely works and when it does he rarely troubles to answer it. This is the case with pretty much everyone in this city, except me, Mr Everkeen, Mr Instanttextback. I get bored easily, okay?

I got paid the day before, temporarily alleviating the rib-kicking emptiness of my wallet. And, like anyone who has ever spent a week eating only bread and potatoes will tell you, the first inclination you have after finally acquiring money is to celebrate by spending absolutely all of it. Hey, I never claimed to be a smart man.

We got road beers at 1 o’clock on a Wednesday and mooched to Berlin Zoo, through Berlin’s mini red light district, which is just an empty road with black SUVs lining the pavement and haggard looking women wearing thick coats and high heels with bare legs stood at ten metre intervals. It’s bleak, and pains me every time I have to walk past. A large woman in tiny black heels had a wee in the street as we hurried passed. There is one particular woman who breaks my heart – middle aged, quiet and resigned, not swaying and semi-naked like the others, she just looks like someone’s mum. It’s all so sad.

We passed the prostitutes and after a mile or so reached the zoo. It was a cold winter day, and on paying entry we realised why there was no queue: it was freezing cold, most of the animals were inside or had been moved to other zoos, and the place was generally a building site. Winter is apparently when they perform park maintenance, when the crowds are low. The ticket office were bloody tight lipped about that, perfectly happy to charge us full price to instead see herds of diggers and packs of native  builders, alpha males striding around with hard hats and clipboards.

Refusing to be depressed by the empty zoo, we grabbed a map and followed the maze of pathways to the monkey and/or ape house. Despite the sadness of seeing these incredible animals out of their natural habitat, it was impossible not to feel wonder when watching the enormous orangutans swing around their enclosure. I’ve not been to a zoo since I was very young, and I was stunned watching the apes and their mannerisms. It really is like watching a young human being. They play, they cuddle one another, they sit and think and watch. The largest orangutan was draped in elegant red hair a foot long. It trailed behind him as he walked slowly across his cage. The thought that such a human-like, enormous animal could exist in the wild thrilled me as it dawned on me.

Imagine our ancestors exploring the jungles of Indonesia, Malaysia or Borneo, only to stumble across this giant hairy man chewing vegetables thoughtfully and effortlessly hoisting himself high into the trees above. Knowing that animals like this still exist in the wild feels magical, and at the same time fills me with frantic concern and desperate sadness that they might soon be gone.

We watched the largest ape, four times the size of any other, sit and skilfully complete a puzzle. There was a series of small holes in a wooden box containing food, and another hole lay in the bottom, with several layers, all with their own holes in the sides and floor. The huge orangutan held a twig in its mouth and gently prodded the morsels of food into each hole, dropping from level to level, until it all fell out of the bottom of the box and into his patiently waiting palm. I know a few humans who would have a hard time grasping the same concept.

We also saw feeding time in the gorilla’s pen. The silverback was breathtaking and terrifying at once, walking squat and slow across the enclosure on the knuckles of forearms bulging with muscle. He did not look happy. The silverback was initially sat with his back to the press of faces at the window, but after a while glanced over his shoulder and noticed us. He stood up slowly and walked over, standing on the other side of the glass, mouth turned down, gazing from face to face. Looking an ape in the eye isn’t like looking a dog or cat in the eye, intelligent though they are. Look a gorilla in the eye, and you can feel it assessing you. You can read its emotions through its face alone; no body language or tail wagging is necessary. And this gorilla did not like any of us. Every zoo I’ve been to is a jarring juxtaposition of wonder and sadness.

We left the apes and wandered the rest of the park. We saw rhinos and elephants and lions and black panthers and a polar bear, all of which were astonishingly beautiful, however after a couple of hours I felt glum. Seeing a polar bear stood lonesome and white on a pile of fake rocks surrounded by a murky pool, skyline of high rise flats behind, is profoundly depressing. The smaller animals were less upsetting, as their habitats were comparatively huge. Desert mice and other pray-type animals would surely have a vastly improved life in a safe, warm zoo. For the larger animals, the predators, the explorers, the loners and the too-intelligent, it just seems wrong.

Mountain goats and Mercedes

One of the most interesting animals we saw were the hippos. Again, shitty small enclosure, but at least they had some genuine foliage and a little room to float around. They look like weird sex toys that have been given life by a pubescent teen’s Christmas wish. It was feeding time when we arrived, and from a balcony high up, a warden was lobbing full loaves of bread straight down their gullets. In an effort, presumably, to solicit more food thrown in its direction, the largest, most terrifying hippo in existence smeared its face up against the glass, just inches from us. You can see why they’re the most dangerous animal in the world. They look like dinosaurs. Bloated comedy dinosaurs, sure, but they could still Fuck You Up.

Hey good lookin’

We left after two hours, walking back through the midst of the prostitutes. We once again passed the mum-looking lady, and a blacked out car no doubt containing her pimp. If today highlighted anything, it’s that human beings are capable of doing some hideous things. I can see zoos becoming less and less popular as we move into the modern age, the age where we (hopefully) grow up and look at the mistakes of our ancestors and correct them. It is possible to grow, and to better yourself, whether as a society or as a whole. I was flicking through my old social media posts the other day, and was appalled at how often I used ‘gay’ as an insult. At the same time, I was glad that I’ve grown up and ditched my old, unintentional prejudices. I think we’re overdue one of those moments worldwide.


Well, here we are at the end of today’s diary entry, and all I can do is apologise. You came here no doubt lured by the exciting and confusing title I gave it, ‘Prostitutes and Orangutans’, but instead of a rollicking tale of debauchery and strange mammalian antics, you have instead spent five minutes reading about what a shit time I had at the zoo. Er, sorry. Here, let’s make it worthwhile. Check out this website, where you can donate to help these wonderful, wistful, weird, weird animals.

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