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Journalist Thomas French, writing about the infamous Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida, has subtitled his book Zoo Story thus: Life in the Garden of Captives.

I spent yesterday morning in the company of a number of animals at the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa – lions, a pacing tiger, a shaggy Kodiak bear; even those dopey marsupials, the koalas, whose raison d’être seems to be to cling to eucalyptus trunks for dear life.

These ‘captives’ are wild animals in confined spaces, yes. But the zoo is now playing a conservation role, protecting endangered species and also participating in captive breeding programmes to save animals like the Arabian Oryx and reintroduce it back into the wild.

The ‘menagerie effect’ is partly illusion, since the zoo is heavily involved in animal husbandry and research. Penguins are now breeding successfully at the zoo. Two endangered Ground Hornbills have just found a home here.

I had the chance to chat to the zoo’s managing director, Dr Clifford Nxomani, a microbiologist and molecular biologist by training. Nxomani believes the zoo can play a vital role in conservation and, to this end, a programme of educational talks on the subject has been put together for visitors. Holiday courses for children are on offer. And putting the environment first is a priority at the zoo.

I must admit that my visit was not without its gawking moments. How often do you get to see a tiger this close?

Wildlife has the power to make jaws drop. But I couldn’t help but notice that my fellow gawkers could do no better than trot out some rather dreadful clichéd observations. This tiger was relaxing in a pool of water before he got up to pace. The man next to me said, “He’s finished his Jacuzzi now.”

At the bear enclosure, a child asked his father, “Dad, what’s the bear doing?” “He’s taking care of ‘bear’ necessities,” his father quipped, rather shamelessly.

Why, why can’t we respond to these animals with a more appropriate sense of awe? Do we just take them for granted? Is that it? Are we so used to National Geographic specials that these creatures hold no more power to rob us of speech?

I waited until the crowds had moved on to enjoy watching the animals doing what animals do, without having to listen to platitutdes. Now that was special.