There is nothing quite so British as discussing the weather. I don’t know what it is about our great grey rain saturated country but it results in endless conversation, usually bewailing how wet and cold we are and dreaming of foreign lands where the sun makes more than just a brief appearance. One of the many things I adore about being a zookeeper is how acutely you can feel the seasons change around you. Of course British weather does always keep you guessing until the last minute but you can sense the changes in the air and anticipate what the next season will bring.
In Spain Autumn had finally arrived. We had gone from 34 degrees Celsius down to the mid 20s and I couldn’t believe how much colder I felt now that I was used to the Spanish warmth. There was no autumnal crisp cold kiss on the end of your nose when you inhaled deeply and only a few of the leaves had started to turn but it was finally too cold to eat tea out on the terrace sadly. However the midday sun still brought with it a warm embrace of blue sky and sunshine whilst we hiked the hills with the huskies.
The change in season had failed to change one thing though; the absurd yet delightful amount of festivals! It seems there is a festival for just about everything, it’s fantastic. The Catalans love any excuse to get together and, more importantly, EAT together so in our last few days we found ourselves at a garlic festival and a bottifara festival in a very short space of time. But in each festival there was a curious absence of each of the celebrated foodstuffs. There were masses of bulbs of garlic in one particular tent at the garlic festival and the smell was incredible but very little way for us to enjoy it. I know this isn’t France but a garlic festival with no garlic bread?! Even the notion! However there were more dancing giants swaying their way precariously down the streets to the beat of many drums. And there was of course some very good food, including bottifara and consequently many pig themed amusements such as an alleyway where you go in through the pigs mouth, journey down accompanied by the oinking sound of excitable piggies then exit through the…..you guessed it! We had a great time and I only just resisted the urge to buy more cheese on the pretext that I would have to eat it all before we left in less than 24 hours.
Another place we went on our final days was to a primate rescue centre called MONA. Our visit to MONA was an inspiring one for here was a place struggling for money yet not open to the public unless by special appointment. They took other people’s problems animals and nurtured them with such high welfare standards that I was absolutely astounded. And the thing I loved best is they forced an education of “primates are NOT pets” on people. Zoos these days are insistent on immersive education which is great, it works, but as a keeper who would spend 6 hours a day or more trying my best to convince people not to get a primate as a pet it was refreshing to see how this place ensured the message got through. The tour started with a video showing an advert for a famous fast food company whom ‘I’m lovin’ less” after seeing their use of a Chimpanzee to advertise. This was followed by footage of the same Chimp and others back at “home” in their prison. Yes I shamelessly use such emotive language because after the age of five when the Chimps were less “negotiable” shall we say, they were kept in tiny crates and literally never let out. It reminded me of the Bear bile farmed Bears we will be working with in December. The problem being that this man imprisoning these animals would be fined by the local authorities but the Chimps could not be seized because there was no where else for them to go. And then came the MONA foundation. It was built specifically for the rescue of these particular animals and predictably more required rescue as time went on.
You are met at the entrance and given a fully guided tour. At no point in this tour were we out of sight of the tour guide who could easily monitor behaviour and therefore ensure everyone behaved correctly. For me I was not allowed to lipsmack which is a primate greeting behaviour I habitually do in a regular basis from working with Baboons for so many years. However it would antagonise the Chimps and so I held back. For Mr Joe Public it meant no throwing of stones/food/sticks at the animals, no chasing them around the enclosure, no shouting at them, no banging on the glass (if there had been any) and no crossing of stand off barriers (which were three times wider than normal). Sadly this is the kind of behaviour commonly seen in zoos by people who should and do know better but it was wonderfully to know that this could not occur here.
We were shown the mixing facilities when new individuals were brought in, rehabilitated and then finally introduced to a troop, one Chimp at a time. The process is painstaking but the staff (80% volunteers) are so patient and understanding with their charges. There was an enrichment room (I was in heaven!) and a very talented man deftly making a fire hose feeder at lightning speed! Then we were shown the main enclosures. There are two, one for a kind of family group and the other for the bachelors (the Catalan word for this being “macho” which I loved). And I have to say I had never been to a place that housed Chimps that was so peaceful and quiet. We heard one brief argument the entire time we were there but the rest of our visit was as quiet as a mouse who had decided to take a vow of silence in order to contemplate the meaning of life and the deliciousness of cheese.
We saw some real characters when we were there, my favourite being “Bongo” who was a fine looking male with arms like a Gibbon and a slight ego problem. The centre also has four gorgeous Barbary Macaques, all with their own story, mainly rescues from the illegal pet trade. They are desperately trying to raise money to enlarge their enclosure and move to another premises with less flooding problems so I encourage all my dear readers to please donate to this worthy cause or indeed offer your time. Go visit Catalonia, enjoy all it has to offer then go and work for a few days with these animals and maybe we can attempt to apologise to our primate relations for what our species does to theirs on an regular basis. To have at look at the amazing work they do check out the website
However our time in Spain had come to an end. We had explored of much of it as we could, we had fallen in love with the landscape, at first so alien to us and certainly come to understand the place better. And we felt we had accomplished a lot in terms of work for our hosts, including the massive pile of firewood we had managed to prepare for them for winter.
We loved our time there, it was certainly a fantastic first stop on this trip and taught us so much we could not even have conceded to want to understand. I was sad but not at all surprised that in my head some of my more aggressive daemons had followed me to this most tranquil of places but it allowed more time for me to consider why they were still lurking in the dark recesses. I know my massive rucksack is heavy enough to lug around the world without the added weight of all that negativity to haul to every country but it also allows me to hope that with each unpacking it might get a little easier.
Although it felt like it was the right time to move on and explore and experience more of the world I was very sad to go. Saying goodbye to our hosts and those wonderful huskies which had so enriched our visit was particularly difficult. But away we went for we had a new destination. Our home for the next month would be the mountains of central Italy.