Peter is an independent international zoo consultant, critic and writer with over 50 years of work within zoos.
I turn 73 in October 2021. I have had a good life and anticipate a few more enjoyable years before I cast off this mortal coil. I think my allotted three score years and ten are more than enough and I have no desire to go on for much longer than that unless.....unless.....well, who knows?
I have never wanted to go back a year, not one...well we can't can we? No I have been as happy at 70 as I was at 60 or 50, 40, 30, 20. 70 is, as anticipated, just as much fun. There is no denying that some bits of me are not working as well as they used to but surprise, surprise, some bits are working better than they ever did.
Seventy Three though. Time for a bit of reflection and looking back I wonder should I be here or somewhere else?
Asbestos. I have heard a lot about the dangers and the disabilities resulting from exposure. I remember when a boiler was dismantled in the Welsh Mountain Zoo how the debris had to be covered with dampened blankets till a specialist disposal team arrived.
As a kid though nobody told me anything. I was brought up in the Middle East. Our houses were blessed with central air conditioning. The cooled air blew down tunnels of asbestos into every room in the house during every day of the summer months.
The building sites around our rapidly expanding desert town were like a magnet to us kids. They were places for us to play and fight, build and demolish. We crawled and hid in newly constructed asbestos ducting. We rolled in asbestos dust, we covered ourselves in it. It got literally everywhere.
A few years later in a wood above Robin Hoods Bay in North Yorkshire some friends and I built a fire. Lying close by was a broken sheet of asbestos. We used pieces of that to shield one side of the fire....well it is fireproof, everyone knows that don't they? It was here that I learned that it is highly explosive when heated too. We dived for cover as shards of asbestos blasted outwards burying itself inches deep into some of the surrounding trees.
Our little desert town struggled to keep down its mega population of flies. They could make life very uncomfortable at times.
Dotted about there were fly traps. Metal containers in which hung a rotting piece of donkey meat. Flies found their way in, but there was no way out. I recollected a photograph of a pile of flies removed from these traps. A pile almost three feet high!
But it was not enough. At least once a week a convoy of pick up trucks would spread out through the town. On the back of each of these was a DDT fogger. This produced a thick wet smoke of DDT in which no fly could fly. For us kids though it was magic. We ran in the fog till our hair, skin and clothes were wet with the stuff. It was not a one off. We did it practically every week.
No-one warned us about the sun. There was no 'Sun Factor...whatever' for protection way back then. It had not even been thought about let alone been invented. No, our whole aim was to darken our skins as far as was possible. Who could possibly want protection from the sun? It was a laughable idea.
We kids rarely bothered to apply anything at all. Perhaps our mothers would rub in a bit of Nivea if they could keep hold of us long enough.
We spent practically every possible waking hour at the beach or our club at the the swimming pool. Our hair was bleached and our skins from golden to black.
My first bout with skin cancer was in 1982. Two further returns in the following twenty years and then nothing till 2020. I face further operations this year.
All of this due to exposure to the sun as a child.
The Swimming Pool
They closed the pool from time to time. 'Cholera Outbreak' they would say and set up barriers. Filteration would stop and the water would rapidly take on a greenish hue.
It didn't stop us though. Either under the cover of darkness or very quietly during the day we would swim in the Cholera infected water.
I always had an interest in animals. The creatures of the desert were a source of fascination to me whether feral donkeys, lizards, termites or moths. I liked them all.
There was rarely a time I did not have a small zoo hidden away in a corner of our garden and over the years we kept a variety of creatures. Collecting trips into the desert were a regular activity. We kids walked miles and knew every ripple in the sand. At age nine I recollect one trip. We hoped to catch a snake. We saw them rarely and it would be something different to a Dhub or Jerboah. Ill equiped as we were we caught one. I can well remember my delight on lifting up a wind blown cement bag and seeing the snake lying there. I had brought a piece of cloth in which to take it home. It wasn't even a bag. The snake tried to bite me several times as I wrapped it in the cloth but somehow I succeeded. Not for long though. We had about a miles walk back home and the snake was out of the bag in about the first fifty yards. Never mind because it was less aggressive now. I just carried it. Sometimes I changed it to my other hand and sometimes draped it round my neck.
Back at home my mother was asleep. Siesta time. We placed the snake in a tin bath in the garden and played with it for about an hour. I then thought I would take it to a friends house to show him. Along the way we passed a group of Iranian labourers digging a ditch. They screamed and ran in terror. Several towards my friends house. His father quickly appeared, grabbed the snake from me, cast it to the ground and cut it into several pieces. I never forgave him for that. The snake was a Horned Viper!
When I was curator of the National Zoological Garden in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates I had a large number of diverse creatures in my charge. I loved them all but had a special affection for the animals of the desert which had so absorbed me when I was young. These of course included the snakes. I caught many and added these to the already big collection of exotic species the zoo kept.
I remember one particular day. It was hot. It was lunchtime and all staff had disappeared for a meal and siesta. I was the only person on duty. As I walked around the zoo I spotted a snake just as it disappeared into a length of metal pipe. I looked in. It was resting. Out of a length of wire I made an impromptu snake hook and slowly pulled the snake out. As I lowered it to the ground so that I could more easily grab it, it shot like greased lightening up the leg of my jeans. People who have not been in such a position will be completely unaware of the sort of thoughts and feelings that such a predicament produces. The snake was venomous and it was biting...I could see the fangs keep protruding through the denim on my leg. I am not sure to this day exactly how I got my jeans off without being bitten. A mixture of speed and caution with a dash of panic. I was only glad that there was nobody their to witness what was a very embarressing situation.
Some years later I was visiting a small zoo outside Pattaya in Thailand. As I walked along a path something rolled under my foot and as I looked down it bit be. It was a Russell's Viper (I had bred dozens in my former profession). It bit my foot one fang going into my skin and the other into, and remaining in, the strut on my sandle.
Actually a difficult position to be in. Okay the prick of the fang hurt a little but not terribly so. So what to do? Run screaming for help? No, I knew not to panic. But who to tell? How to tell, to explain. I decided to wait a bit and see what happened. I knew that snakes could 'fire blanks' from time to time. I took out my notebook and made a few notes. Twenty minutes later I still felt fine. Another lucky escape.
I was walking in the mountains of Turkey. I had not seen anyone for some time but then I came across a gypsy family picking fruit from a tree. Unusual fruit, rather like small strawberries. I watched a while and then asked if the fruit was good. They passed me a handful. I took one and I popped it into my mouth. Very tasty! I thanked them and walked on my way munching one little fruit after another.
I carried on down a hill and round a bend before it hit me. I was having terrible difficulty breathing and had broken out in a cold sweat. My heartbeat had become irregular and my throat and nose felt extremely uncomfortable.
What a time to discover I had an allergy to a fruit I did not even know the name of. I guessed I was in anaphylactic shock and in spite of several first aid courses over the years I could not remember what to do. Make myself comfortable I thought. Besides there was nobody here. I sat and leaned against a tree. It was a lovely place with a beautiful view. I suspected I may die but it wasn't a bad place to die.
An hour or so later I felt sufficiently recovered to continue on my way. My tongue felt numb but other than that I quickly returned to normal.
Not my time yet. I had been given another chance.
We did not see many camels round our little desert town. They were there of course but sufficiently rare to bring out a camera when we saw one.
When I started my zoo career I learned about camels and they played an important role up until 1982. Ten years before though I had a rather awful experience which left me with a great respect for the power of the beast.
At the time I was working in Cleethorpes Zoo and Marineland in Lincolnshire. We had three camels there, a huge Bactrian who gave rides in the summer and a pair of Dromedaries. The Dromedaries were a gift to somebody by the Sheikh of Bahrain.
One day the camel keeper told me he was unable to get the male Dromedary to go outside. I walked over to the house and in with the stubborn beast. "Yala" I shouted. "Yala". He quickly turned his head and lunged grabbing my entire stomach in his mouth. At the same time he rose to his feet carrying me and swinging me like a rag doll. There was absolutely nothing I could do.
The camel enclosure was double fenced. The outer fence to stop visitors getting access and an inner fence of welded steel pipe which served as a stand off for the camels.
As I passed around the paddock in the camels mouth I was viewing the world upside down but swinging as I was I could see it was only a matter of time before my head was going to come crashing hard, very hard into the piping.
Unbeknown to me a keeper working in a paddock some distant away had seen my predicament. He came running and leaping and somehow managed to hit the camel very hard with a brick.
It was a very lucky escape. I was left with a very sore stomach with a lovebite the size of a dinner plate. It passed through my mind the damage that could have been done if he had grabbed me any lower....but if my head had hit that pipe...there is little doubt in my mind that I would not be here today.
It was not my time though.
A Killer Whale
Cuddles was a killer whale. The first killer whale in a zoo in the UK. He got his unlikely name because he had been originally thought to be a female. I can well remember the excitement surrounding his arrival at Flamingo Park Zoo in Yorkshire.
Although I was a big cat keeper at the time I was an expert swimmer and so often called in to assist with pool maintenance at the 'Dolphin House'. A little later one of the trainers became my girlfriend and because I was one of the very few staff to live on site the dolphin house was the only place I could have a hot shower. I have fond memories of that shower.
All these links meant that I became very fond of Cuddles. In fact, on many days I was the first person Cuddles saw and more often than not I was the last too.
I recollect the day my special affection began. It was around six in the morning when I entered the dolphin house and called out to the whale. He was busy doing something on the far side of the pool but he turned and sped towards me. He raised his head from the water and there in the front of his mouth was a frog which he handed to me gently. "Thank you Cuddles." I said as I examined the frog. There wasn't a mark on it. Cuddles sped off and just as fast returned with another frog. Again it was completely uninjured. Off again. I got hold of a bucket and over the next half hour Cuddles almost filled it with frogs. I released them at the lake a bit later.
Many months later Cuddles became very ill with dysentery and the pool was found to be red with blood. Training of the unfortunate animal had at that point not reached the stage where he would readily come into a sling for treatment. This meant the pool had to be drained so that
tubing and other medical procedures could be carried out. It was after one of these procedures that I suggested that someone should remain behind with the whale to keep him company till the re-filling pool reached a decent depth. The previous 2 nights he had been left as soon as he was floating.
It was agreed as it was my suggestion that I should be the one. It wasn't a chore, I was happy to do it. Everyone went home as soon as Cuddles started to float. Dressed in a wet suit I stood next to him in the icy water. I stroked him gently and told him stories of icebergs, leopard seals, penguins and polar bears.
Once the water had reached five foot I decided to take my leave and said goodbye. As I turned to swim for the ladder...whop! He had grabbed my wetsuit taking both the lower part of the jacket and the upper part of the trousers into his mouth. I tried and tried and tried and tried but there was no way to get him to let me go or me to get out of the wetsuit. He had not grabbed me, just the suit and I feel he knew that.
I did not become frightened until Cuddles decided to rest on the bottom of the pool.
I have always liked being underwater. There is a peace there which cannot be found on mother earth. As a child I spent a lot of time in the bottom of the pool looking for coins or just relaxing. I even developed a technique whereby I could cup my hands, exhale some air into them and make bubbles sit over my eyes. I could then see as if I was wearing goggles. As the years passed I learned to stay under water longer and longer. Just lying there I could easily surpass three minutes. Later I spent almost an entire summer pearl diving in the Arabian Gulf and learned to stay down even longer. Coincidentally I had a ring made out of the better pearls I had collected and gave this to my dolphin trainer girlfriend.
One thing I very quickly learnt on that frightening night was that I could not submerge as long as a killer whale. I knew if I relaxed and did not panic that I could hold my breath for longer. The night continued with endless submergings. Sometimes we surfaced for a minute or so but more often there was only time to catch a breath. The water now was so cold I could no longer feel my hands.
I knew in my heart that the whale did not want to hurt me. He was lonely. He did not realise the very awkward position I was in. The night wore on. I noticed the sun had started to rise. Some time after seven in the morning I looked up to see a figure looking down at me. I think I said "Help". He disappeared and returned minutes later in a wetsuit. As he descended the ladder Cuddles released me. With my 'rescuers' help I was pulled up and out of the pool. I collapsed in a heap.
Close call Peter. Not this time.
I had been offered a temporary posting at an animal collecting camp outside Kinshasa in the Central African Republic. I was very keen to go for the experience but did not want to lose my full time post of Curator of the 'Cricket St Thomas - The West Country Wildlife Park' in Somerset.
I spoke to my boss and he agreed to let me go if I could find someone to take over one of the most important of my responsibilities. This was as keeper to two Asian Elephants. They were two beautiful animals of good temperament called 'Twiggy' and 'Chikki'. Caring for them was not a chore, it was a pleasure. I even took them out walking through the park daily and down into the river where they bathed with the Sea Lions.
I had met an elephant keeper at a zoo meeting some weeks before and he had expressed interest in finding a new post so I contacted him and arranged a date for him to come for an interview.
He arrived, met the zoo director and was shown round the section we had put together for him. This included part of my wifes section who would be going to stay with her mother for a while before joining me in Kinshasa. The interview went well. He was a nice bloke.
Now there is not a great deal in hiring an elephant keeper without introducing him to the elephants. Elephants choose their keepers. I have worked with a dozen or so over the years but there have been two that would not entertain me as a keeper.
I took the new man into the house where the two animals stood chained. We approached the larger animal 'Twiggy' and WHOP she smashed the new man to the floor and instantly went down into a headstand position to crush him. I managed to drag him a little way before she stopped me. I stood keeping him under my legs to protect him and she pressed on my chest. I cried out but quickly the air was expelled from my lungs and some ribs began to break. Then all of a sudden she backed off. I think she had just realised it was me she was 'killing', With one hand holding my chest I was able to assist my friend out of the house with the other.
It was a very close call for both of us. It was not my time to go.
I didn't get to go to the Central African Republic either.
On Being Blown Up
We were in Al Ain. It was night, My wife and I were in our house, the curtains were closed. My wife stood with the curtains behind her. I sat facing her.
All of a sudden I saw through the curtains a huge mushroom of flame. I started to rise with "what wa....." on my lips when the whole world exploded. The ceilings in every room of the house came crashing down, all the windows blasted inwards, the front door shot up the hall and into the kitchen. Everywhere was dust. My wife was screaming soundlessly and the TV carried on as if nothing had happened. It was weird, frightening!
Once we had pulled ourselves together I went out to check the zoo, but thats another story.
The incident never appeared in any newspaper or on any news bulletin. There were rumours of sabotage of the army camp up the road, of unprotected munitions. I don't suppose we will ever know. Doctor friends of ours said that so many bodies were brought in that the mortuary was quickly full to overflowing.
Interesting to note that in the light of day one could see that the blast had passed in waves across the desert. Damage to trees then all intact, then damage, then intact. I learned there were deaths a mile beyond us. We were lucky.
Poison Arrow Frog
I had been waiting in excitement for weeks for the arrival of a consignment of reptiles and amphibians. I was particularly looking forward to some Poison-Arrow frogs I had ordered. I had spent some days setting up a beautifully planted terrarium for them. Poison Arrow Frog heaven.
As is always with these things the arrival took place when I was alone. Some creatures could wait but others, like the frogs needed introducing to their new home as soon as possible. There were six of them, each packed in a clear perspex tube. A piece of sponge at each end and a damp piece of cotton within. They looked beautiful...like little jewels.
Wearing a pair of surgical gloves I decanted them one at a time into their new home. I stood back like proud parent and watched a while whilst they settled in. Pressed for time I set too with the rest of the animals.
Ten minutes later I checked on the frogs again. Oh Gosh something was wrong. Very wrong. The frogs were stressed, two of them were on their backs. This did not look good. Quickly I recovered the tubes and climbed into the tank to recapture the frogs. I had just caught the third one when I felt a sharp pain in my hand. What! I looked. No sign of an injury. I put the frog into the tube. Oh... Oh... suddenly I found I was having difficulty breathing and my heart was having palpitations. Was I imagining this? I caught the rest of the frogs but was feeling worse by the second.
Getting out of the tank was one of the most difficult feats I have ever had to do. I collapsed on the floor. I could go no further, do no more. I lay quietly using my best yoga breathing techniques to calm my body. Ten minutes later I got up and staggered to my home and got a lift to hospital.
It was very difficult to explain what had happened. They took my blood pressure, my temperature and listened to my heart. They then shot me full of adrenalin and left me alone. An hour or so later I felt well enough to go home.
To this day I am really not sure what happened. The story was written up by David Taylor in one of his Zoo Vet books. It even appeared in a television series but there it was in a different zoo, a different person, a different sex.
My Filipina girlfriend and I were were on Palawan island. We had visited a few animal collections and decided to take some time out and took a jeepney to the coast. We booked into a beautiful hotel.
The beach was clean, the water blue and it was very quiet. Just how I liked it. We went into the water and within a minute i was got. I don't actually remember screaming but I know I did and it must have been loud because people started to appear.
I knew just what had happened. I have been stung by jellyfish hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. This was a jellyfish sting with a difference. This was agony. I quickly left the water. I could see the tendrils around my hand they were huge. My girlfriend 'Gloria' tried to rub them off but I managed to stop her. Using a small stick I managed to remove them, carefully, one at a time. Meanwhile people had called for Calamansi (lime juice) and squeezed this over my hand. It made no difference. A little later I went into the shower and urinated on my hand. That didn't help either. I was in pain for days.
But I was lucky because we learnt that a child had been killed on the same beach by a jellyfish just days before.
Jellyfish sting - 4 days after
In our little Desert town we lived an interesting life. One of my friends was very much into 'swapping'. "I will swap this for that" he would say.
Now I cannot remember what it was of mine that I handed over in exchange for a cupful of liquid mercury. Quicksilver. Wonderful shiny stuff that almost has a life of its own. It is fun to drop a blob and watch it break into a thousand pieces which you then have to coax back together. It is surprisingly heavy. It is fun to play with but not much use unless you are into manufacturing thermometers. It is also poisonous.
I don't quite know how I discovered another property and that is that if you immerse a copper based coin in liquid mercury and the rub the coin quickly between your fingers then in a minute or three the coin becomes siver in colour. It will remain silver for about twenty four hours before the mercury falls off. The only odd thing about such a 'silver' coin is that it has a slippery wet feel to it.
Our currency at the time, if I recollect correctly was Naye Paise. Five Naye Paise was copper and you could buy nothing with it. Twenty Naye Paise was silver and you could buy a coke, an ice lolly or several other goodies.
So to cut a long story short I had quite a good little counterfeit business for a while turning five Naye Paise coins into twenties. I have no idea how much mercury I absorbed through my skin.
Escaping our little desert town for the delights of the beach were always a welcome distraction. Never boring as this offered opportunities to fish or water ski.
We would often spend all day and into the night on the beach sometimes partying and at others just hanging out. I recall memorable nights where every movement of our bodies in the dark seawater would produce iridescent bubbles of flourescence. Not all nights were so safe. I recollect, with horror now, the competitions to see how far one could swim out at night. Half a mile, a mile were not unusual reaching even to oil tankers waiting at berth. Stupid kids.
The nearby harbour was often a tempting change of venue. The water was deep there. We would climb up onto one of the metal barges and then run and dive or leap into the water below. We often saw small sharks there. A metre or a metre and a half long they held no fear and we would try and leap on them. One attempt only because they quickly sped away.
On one day when we had been doing a lot of leaping and jumping into the deep blue water we noticed a lot of activity on the other side of the harbour. This was less than a hundred yards away but we could not see quite what was going on.
Later we learned that they had pulled a record sized shark out of the water. We saw the cleaned jaws later. Any of us kids could have slipped between them without the unfortunate animal noticing.
A Gun at My Head
A young giraffe had escaped from a crate in an aircraft hangar in Abu Dhabi International Airport. The Director of Al Ain Zoo and Aquarium had spent the day trying to re-crate it without success. On his return to the zoo he said I should go and sort it out.
The following day I chucked a few belongings in a bag because I was aware how unpredictable such events could be. Almost as an afterthought I put in a bottle of immobilon and a dart pistol. Okay I'm not a vet but way back then the zoo had no vet and I had received training in the immobilisation of animals.
All went well. I had the young animal boxed fairly quickly and was pleased that I could return home. Only I could not. I received a Royal command that I should go with the transport and take the giraffe (there were two of them) to Sir Bani Yas island. The crates were loaded onto the back of a military lorry and we set off.
The journey went well and the young animals arrived in excellent condition and were released into a holding pen. I was pleased the move had been uneventful. I was less so when informed that the lorry would not return to Abu Dhabi till the following day. I spent the night playing Chinese Canasta with a group of Waziri Pathan labourers.
The return journey in a military vehicle was uneventful and I was dropped off outside the military airport. Almost immediately I caught a taxi who agreed to drive me through the desert back to Al Ain. This necessitated a drive through the front of the civil airport to fill up with fuel for the journey. As we approached I could see that something was up. There were soldiers running all over. Two of them jumped in front of the taxi and ordered me out. I obviously was not quick enough because one of them wrenched the door open and pulled me out. I was thrown across the bonnet of the taxi and a machine gun pressed hard into the back of my head. I was close enough to the windscreen to see inside the taxi.
What I did see made my heart jump. One of the soldiers had just started to unzip my bag. The dart pistol was lying on the top inside. At the same time my taxi driver suddenly came to life shouting at the soldiers saying that whatever the problem was I was not part of it because he had just collected me from the military airport. Happily they stopped all action and we were allowed on our way.
I learnt just a little later that there had been an assassination attempt on one of the Royal family in the airport. The assassin had been shot. I feel very sure I would have been too if my bag had been unzipped further and the pistol inside exposed.
A close call. Another chance.
I loved my wife to distraction. In thirty years together I never once strayed or was unfaithful. I never forgot an anniversary, a birthday or a valentine. I told her I loved her at least half a dozen times each day and meant it every time. I brought her tea in bed every day and was as likely to cook for her as she was for me. I was a good provider. I was never a 'boys night out' sort of person and if I went out at all it was for dinner with my wife. My sex life was good. I had had several imaginative lovers before marriage but now I was more than satisfied. Loving never decreased in quantity or quality over the years. I don't recollect us ever fighting before marriage and can recollect the tiffs we had in the following twenty nine years on the fingers of one hand. In short I really loved her. I was happy.
We had just enjoyed a few days break in Bath and were relaxing at home. "Peter, I don't love you anymore. I am leaving you tomorrow." She said.
To say the bottom dropped out of my world would be an understatement. There had been no clues, no build up. Something actually snapped inside my head. I cried, I questioned, I queried, I begged but to no avail. Suddenly an odd feeling of calm came over me.
My whole reason for living had suddenly gone, I was empty, I was finished.
This was just the beginning of depression, the unseen killer. Depression cannot be fully understood by anyone who has not been there. It has only a very very very distant relationship to sadness. Being sad is not being depressed. Depression is an illness, an illness in the brain that affects the body. An illness that can not be seen. It is all the worse for that. People can sympathise with paralysis or amputation or cancer and yet depression is ignored because of ignorance of the condition.
People with depression kill themselves. Suicide is a very real possibility and almost inevitable without help. Depression can be final.
From my own experience I don't believe that sufferers of depression actually want to kill themselves. They just want to escape. In my case I wanted not to have been born, to have never existed. I did not want to die...just not to 'be' anymore.
With help I managed to get through what was my closest 'brush with death'. Now I'm glad I went through it. I definitely learnt by it and have been able to help others as a result.
Well I'm still here. Several years have passed. I am obviously here for a reason. I've missed out been shot at, fighting off knife attacks, a car crash, blinded by locusts, being skewered by an oryx, eaten by monkeys, tossed in the air by a Cape Buffalo, and avoiding being shot down by Russian fighter jets and a number of other close calls.
In 2019 I had a stroke. It hit me out of the blue. It incapacitated me and continues to do so. Some days are better than others. I am lucky though, so much luckier than some. I can walk and carry out much of what I could do before though now I tire easily (Post Stroke Fatigue messes up my every day). Although I could have done without the stroke it led to me getting to know the most wonderful woman...so its not all bad,
Am I accident prone? No way. I have just lived my life and continue to do so.
Here and now I am happy. Happy with my life. I have very few regrets. I am looking forward to the rest of today and looking forward to tomorrow. Along the way I hope to make a few other people happy too.