‘Somehow I never realized there’re zoos in Middle Eastern countries’ my friend says while chatting on the phone.
It’s 11 o’clock local time in Iran as I talk to her. I’m about to go to the zoo. She continues her surprising. ‘You know, it’s a whole different kind of country like we are living in, I didn’t expect there would be anything like this kind of entertainment, you know, like the things we do here.’
I’m about to go to the zoo in Mashad. I’m in Iran’s second and most religious city. The place that is known for the huge Imam Reza shrine, attracting religious visitors from all over the country and beyond.
To my surprise, I found out about the existence of an animal garden in this city. Located at the end of the metro line.
Curiosity about the daily life in Iran has taken over.
It’s 12 ‘o clock and I’m in front of a fence with a cash desk. I buy a ticket and I follow the line to the other side of the fence.
It takes three seconds before I see an animal garden that has a lot of animals but little garden.
Truth is, I’m kind of surprised. All I see are minimalistic caves with animals, lots of visitors and the air fulfilled with the smell of popcorn. For a moment hesitation pops up. I don’t know if this is the place I want to be. I love animals and in my mind they had a huge park. Reality is different, I see a lot of animals in not such a huge park.
There are many visitors, almost too much for the small space. The zoo is obvious a popular attraction. And the smell of popcorn is really everywhere. I’m in a zoo that smells like popcorn.
Something past noon
It’s five minutes past twelve and I decide to ignore the hesitation and to start walking in the zoo. Like everyone else, I stroll around the green, minimalistic caves. I see an old looking bear, overly active huskies and sleepy flamingos.
While the row of animals continues, more and more small candy shops become visible. This is where the smell of popcorn is produced, chips are sold and drinks are available. The aroma does the marketing. I start to feel more comfortable, the hesitation is gone. I see people really be enthusiastic about the animals. An old man is concentrated on making a photo of a tiger, I see a family standing and smiling to some unknown tropical bird and the surprising of a young boy when a husky looks at him is more than sweet.
Actually, I notice that I’m enjoying the place. While I’ve seen bears and flamingos before, there’s something special about this zoo.
From all the things that I thought I would see here, I could never have imagined that I would like the excitement of the visitors the most.
But it’s not only excitement I guess. I realize that people are really enjoying the time with the animals. Just like I do at the moment.
Again, the popcorn smell is back. For a moment I wonder why people eat so much sweetness. Shortly after this moment, I see popcorn in the cave of the wild dogs and later I see it disappearing in the mouth of a lama.
To my surprise I see visitors feeding the popcorn to the animals. And the animals eating the popcorn like it’s the best thing they ever had.
I even see a lama and a young girl eating together from the popcorn bag, as I would do with my best friend in the cinema.
It’s 1 ‘ o clock in the afternoon, I sit down at a picnic place between the beavers and an empathy cave. I see people taking selfies in front of the animals. While the selfiemakers create a peace sign with their fingers, the animals are acting cool. Obviously used to this kind of behaviour of their visitors.
It’s something past 1 ‘ o clock when something happens I could never ever have imagined and that I never saw happening in real life.
At the right of me, a man in an overall shows up. In big rubber boots, he makes confidently his walk, passing the caves. The badges show he’s an employee of the zoo. Self confidently he jumps over one of the barriers in front of the caves and walks straight to the lions, the big killer machines of the African steppe.
I suspect food coming up for the lions any moment now. In my mind that is the only way this man could get out alive; by the distraction of food.
Exactly the opposite happens; nothing shows up, no food, no distraction, nothing.
There’s nothing except the man and three female lions in the cave. A mother with her two daughters. As soon as one of the lions sees the man, she starts walking straight towards him.
In my mind all horrible things could happen now.
Reality is different. The lion walks with the elegance of a model on the runway towards the man. She welcomes him with a sweet, little bonk of the head. The lion behaves like a domestic cat. Her eyes are closed and her face is relaxed.
Nothing, but really nothing, looks dangerous in this situation. It’s like old friends meet each other again.
The man pets the lion on her head; she puts herself closer to him and bites softly in his hand, luckily protected by gloves. They obviously enjoy each other’s company.
Sweet moments pass until the man stands up and starts cleaning the cave. The lions walking meanwhile close to him. While he’s taking care of the lion’s residency, food is provided and while the two younger lions start to eat, the older lion goes one last time to the man.
She rewards him with more bonks of the head and is in search of his hand to pet her one more time.
All exactly the same kind of loving behaviour as any domestic cat would do. Only this time the cat is bigger and the location is the zoo of Mashad.
I continue the route in the zoo. Most caves are being cleaned at this moment of the day and the animals are fed.
An older man brooms next to the cage of the bear. He’s talking softly to the brown animal who is clearly not in the mood for contact. The man stands wisely outside the cage.
The lamas have as well a caregiver to clean their mess. They don’t notice him; they’re busy with the audience. And so the zoo-life continues. Each animal being cared for, with a clean residency and food.
It’s a quarter to two and I’m about to leave.
What started as a moment of hesitation became some joyful afternoon hours.
In the outskirts of a religious city, in an Islamic country, where people should dress and behave according to religious laws, I did this afternoon exactly the same things that I would do in my hometown.
Actually, the concept Mashad’s zoo is in fact not any different compared to other zoos in the world.
Like the other visitors, I enjoyed the company of the animals in an artificial garden that I might otherwise never see in real life.
The pleasure of sharing food, the genuine interest of other living beings, all in some little squares, within the background the praying sounds of the mosque. Actually this zoo in Mashad represents the main essentials in life here; eat, pray and love.