No. 1 – Snow Leopards & the Bad Things They Make Me Think

My last day in England before the big trip. It’s raining but it’s springtime and it smells of fresh peas. The blue and gold macaw sits under his plywood shelter at the entrance to the zoo but, in the red limes behind, the rooks are building and they talk to each other all the time. The Bali starlings’ record-scratches stick out of a meandering sauce of robin-song and a weird new call rises from behind the Lawsonia. It’s a drawn-out “owwwwww,” pained and questioning. I wonder what bird or primate could be making it and then I realize that it’s coming from the beast I’ve come to see.

There are two snow leopards in our village, in adjacent cages in the zoo’s southeast corner. It’s a small family-run zoo and still fundraising for a new breeding centre for them. The two cats have names like Transformers: Nefeli and Centurio and it is Centurio who’s calling, He’s calling into the gap between his cage and Nefeli’s. Calling again and again and again because, here and in the Himalaya, it is spring.

Two boys and their mother are watching and listening and the older one addresses me in some distress. “The leopard’s sad,” he says.

“Yes,” I say, without thinking, “he wants to get into the next cage, maybe.” The boy’s only nine or so. His mother gives me an uncertain look because she knows what I mean but she doesn’t know who I am. They’re just moving off.

“Owwwwwww!” Between each yowl there’s a little grouse-like chuckle in his throat like he’s winding up for the next one. It isn’t a purr because big cats don’t actually do that and anyway, like the boy said, he’s sad.

A nine year old boy may assume he’s crying for his liberty but in a few years he’ll understand otherwise. Probably also, like me now, he’ll feel the odd urge to mock. The Cat, the man in the cage, is so earnest. His eyes are so round, the little beans which are his eyebrows twitch so precisely and, though he’s dressed sharply and his sideburns stick out like a panther’s should, he has sawdust fragments on his deep-pile tail. He has no culture.

Nefeli is another story. She lies on her scaffold and stares into Centurio’s cage. She sits up, holding herself like a perfect Greek-sphinx bookend and then collapses again. She walks with him a little bit on the other side of the netting but is obviously less charged than he is. Well actually nothing is obvious to me about her. Is she… grumpy? Where is she in her cycle? Any attempt to understand her mood is just that, an attempt. I can only name what I think I’m seeing. Centurio, meanwhile, expresses himself to me plainer than any haiku could.

For how many days has he been calling like that and how long has she had to listen? The breeding season for wild snow leopards began in January. Here the daffodils are out. There are bees. He could have been yowling for months.

I’ve come to see them, irrationally and selfishly, because a friend had a dream about a snow leopard and I was also mentioned in the dream. It’s taken a lot to get me to the point where I could do that sort of thing. I should be with my family or sensibly packing.

I had this assurance, going in, that it was all going to be about eye contact, not sound. Eye contact with me, I mean. As a child, it was important to me to make eye contact with cats. I don’t think I noticed the difference then between house cats and the kinds in the zoo. Nefeli has moved off and I’m the only one there. Centurio’s gaze glances just off mine as if we were magnets pressed north to north. His eyes are empty of colour like the sky or almost so; there is just a little hint of greenish murk. He’s not a leopard. A leopard’s eyes would be burning gold. A leopard would quickly kill me if I went in there. Well probably. Certainly a tiger would; I’ve spent enough time with zoo people and there are stories about the inner door that somehow wasn’t locked. Really bad stories, some of them. None of those stories were about snow leopards, though. Certainly going in there would be dangerous but I don’t know if it would be certain death? Which means it isn’t. Certain, I mean.

He yowls again and his throat bubbles. Then he goes off to pace the other side of his cage to listen to the rooks which he also can’t get at. ‘Birding,’ I think. ‘Just a guy.’ Then I think: Trump once said that about Putin, didn’t he? ‘Just a guy.’ God.

I’ve been able to get out of bed these last couple of weeks by telling myself that life isn’t about the future, mine or the world’s. I’ve been avoiding thinking about the future of other species for a while, although it was supposed to be my job.

In her book Tigers in Red Weather, Ruth Padel talks about the hormone oxytocin. Tigresses, she assumes, must be just full of it or how could they still have sex with the same tigers who have just finished killing their young? She thinks about a man she loved, the same man whose betrayal left her alone and inexplicably obsessing about tigers until she had to write a book about them. She concludes that oxytocin is a horrible idea. Biology is mostly horrible ideas about beautiful things, isn’t it? Her book about Darwin made me cry.

It’s a famous Anthropocene Fun Fact that there are more tigers in Texas than the wild. It may not be true (Texas doesn’t keep records) but globally the captive population is indeed larger than the wild one. The pan-Asian tiger product industry is one reason for that and the ease with which tigers breed in captivity is the other. Captive populations of Giant pandas and African elephants remain smaller than their wild ones and people laugh at the pandas for it and say they have what’s coming to them for their lack of drive. The cats’ wild sex drive is strong enough to pump snow leopards into the corner of this little village zoo. Of course that isn’t all that counts, but it is a factor.

Snow leopard breeding is more tightly controlled than tiger breeding and so the captive population is genetically healthier overall. Healthier according to the definition accepted by the zoo authorities and the studbook keeper in Sweden anyway. It’s hard to define the health of a lineage.

I suppose I should talk about white tigers.

Snow leopards are a proper species. White tigers aren’t, they’re a breed. They were selectively bred from a pair at Cincinnati and their native habitat is the zoo. Respectable zoos no longer keep them, as a rule. They have the kind of genetic ‘defects’ common in animals bred for their looks but, for all that, they still outnumber many valid species on the IUCN red list. The collective evolutionary effect of their maladies is trumped by whatever the thought of them does in our brains.

Well it’s the same for the snow leopards, isn’t it? Proper species or no. They kill some sheep, they inspire some awe. The scales tip one way then the other as whatever we are flickers madly over the face of the earth. Whichever way the scales tip is ‘evolution’. If something, anything, dies out because something else could spread into its space and replace it then that is, by definition, evolution. Not genetic evolution necessarily but evolution nonetheless.

For ourselves, we are now under evolutionary pressure to want, not just sex, but children. They both always mattered, of course, but children matter more now, relative to sex, than they did and especially in men. If it makes sense to talk about anyone being ‘more evolved’ than anyone else then people who want children more than you do are more evolved than you. As for people who, like male tigers, want to kill other people’s children; well the jury is out on them.

Also there is no jury.

We like to think that unfair evolution doesn’t count. We think so even if the unfairness is in our favour. When our ancestors beat the dinosaurs by being smart and fast and plucky that was evolution. Now we know our ancestors just survived the worst day ever and we call it luck. The argument is that dinosaurs didn’t evolve for surviving asteroid strikes so how could they be expected to do so? Except nothing ever evolves for. Evolution is from. It doesn’t have expectations. Evolution is executioner, executioner and executioner. It shoots first and we ask questions later. Evolution is 100% death. Nobody has ever deserved it. That’s what I learned in school.

Sure, you can find other ways of talking about evolution. You can find different ways of talking about electricity too but the first thing you have to say is don’t stick a fork in the socket. Is there a first thing to say about evolution? I suppose it depends whose enclosure we’ve stepped into. Are we facing danger, in which case it matters to evolution what stories we tell? Or are we facing certain death? In which case it only matters to us.

Why am I talking like this? I used to worry who had stepped into our enclosure. I used to despise people who worried about human extinction.

This stuff is all just too easy to write.

When I leave the zoo someone calls after me. “Hello,” he says as if he’s pleased to see who he thinks I am but isn’t quite sure he’s right. His mild, donnish voice seems to be coming out of the Lawsonia from 10 feet above the ground. I wonder and then realize he must be the blue and gold macaw who’s woken up when the rain stopped. I say “Hello” back but he doesn’t reply; I’m not even sure he was talking to me.

To my friend who had the dream, I send a video of Centurio calling but she has to keep it away from her cat. Little Baboushka tries to run into the room where the recording is playing. Maybe that’s just because the sound is squeezing through a phone speaker. Maybe if she were in the zoo for real she’d do the sensible thing and peg it. Still I’d like to give the lecture just in case: “Baboushka,” I’d say to this cat I’ve never met, “he is ten times your size. Baboushka, sweetheart, he would eat you. It’s not a metaphor, he would literally eat you.” Baboushka are you listening to me?

Cats, eh? Gotta love ’em.

God knows why.