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Zoos show us little more than our own cruelty

There was a time when potentates travelling the world would shoot an animal – a tiger or a lion perhaps – as an expression of diplomatic friendship towards their hosts. The modern equivalent is to trade in endangered animals.

Playing this deeply unattractive game, Gordon Brown will shortly travel to Beijing where, as part of a determined schmooze-the-Chinese offensive, he is expected to finalise a deal to bring two giant pandas to Edinburgh zoo. The negotiations have been going on for some months. The Scottish Royal Zoological Society offered the Chinese government £2m for a 10-year loan of the animals.

Supporting the bid, the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond wrote to the Chinese foreign minister, citing the “warm relationship” between their two countries. He urged David Miliband to lobby for the loan, arguing that “this is primarily a commercial transaction which the Royal Bank of Scotland has agreed to underwrite”. Prince Andrew and Princess Anne have joined the campaign.

Now that it appears to have succeeded, the zoo authorities have said flying the two giant pandas to Scotland was “part of an international breeding and research programme”.

Salmond is right. This is primarily a commercial transaction – and a squalid one at that. There is nothing in the Scottish air to encourage pandas, notoriously hopeless in these matters, to mate. The deal is simple: Britain’s political leaders and Royal Family have been working tirelessly to hire a couple of sensitive, endangered animals as prize money-making exhibits for Edinburgh Zoo.

It is doubtful whether Brown, Miliband, Salmond or Prince Andrew will think too deeply about the ethical dimension but, if they do, they should look to reports from Munster Zoo in Germany, from where photographs of a female lowland gorilla holding the body of her three-month old baby were broadcast around the world.

Here was a perfect animal photo-op. There have been gurgling editorials and much sentimental speculation of what an animal can or cannot feel. It is all rather obscene. Mankind keeps wild animals in captivity for its own entertainment. The animals suffer stress, terror, boredom and illness under deeply unnatural conditions. The PR experts working for the zoo business give them names and nurture the illusion that they are cute yet wild versions of ourselves. The Munster Zoo spokesman, for example, was quoted as saying “we cannot keep on taking away children from a mother”.

When, almost always as a result of this smiling barbarism, something goes wrong – a mother rejects or kills its young, for example – we come over all tearful about the cruelties of nature. It is time to recognise that the cruelty is ours. It is obviously true that young animals die in the wild, but no one who has visited a zoo could deny that certain species, particularly the higher primates, suffer profoundly in captivity.

Exploiting these luckless victims of human arrogance by presenting dysfunctional animal behaviour as if it were some kind of soap opera compounds the immorality. The idea that children are educated by gawping at miserable wild animals is an insult to the intelligence. If anything, all they learn is that it is fine to treat wild animals as a show.

The age of the zoo is over. Sensible families will keep their children away from the two luckless giant pandas who will soon be making Edinburgh their miserable home.

This is no laughing matter…

It is a good time to be a sneerer on the sidelines of life. Polls may suggest that, when it comes to trustworthiness, journalists rank below estate agents and politicians but there is a certain kind who seems to buck the trend: the male, middle-aged, regular-guy scoffer.

A semi-jokey petition on the Downing Street website, expressing support for the celebrity motoring fan Jeremy Clarkson as Prime Minister, was signed by 55,000 people – enough, it appears, for the Government to film a lumberingly humourous response for YouTube.

In America, the status of Jon Stewart, the host of the satirical TV show The Daily News, is such that the New York Times has run a feature asking whether he is now the most trusted man in America. The smirking anchorman is politically the polar opposite of Clarkson, but there are similarities between their public personas. Both are smooth, in a studiously blokeish way, flirt with the camera, and specialise in skirting over important issues in a mugging, funny-but-serious manner. And both present a controversial face while retaining their popularity.

A State Department spokesman has admitted that he watches Jon Stewart’s show, essentially comedy, because “it’s the only way to find out what’s really going on”. It is now an honour for politicians to be invited to appear. Something odd is going on when the balance of power between those who do and those who look on – while making jokes – becomes so weirdly and dangerously skewed.

Jane Austen and the London Olympics

As anxiety grows as to how Britain will best present itself at the ceremony to the London Olympics in four years, a useful tip has been offered by those in control of the country’s TV networks. There should be wigs and bonnets, carriages and perhaps some vintage motor cars, shire horses and sheepdogs. Rosy-cheeked children with old-fashioned haircuts, dressed in flannel shorts and aertex shirts, running about and perhaps carrying wicker picnic baskets.

At a time of present and future uncertainty, the safest place to find entertainment and fun, our broadcasters appear to believe, is in the past. Enid Blyton has just been voted the country’s best-loved author. Now, adding to the mood of nostalgia and general yearning for old certainties, the BBC and ITV have unveiled autumn schedules creaking with dramatisations of – altogether now – Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy.