I can't remember the last time I went to a zoo. I think I've avoided them, put off by overcrowded and unfitting enclosures that felt all too enclosing for the inhabitants, with too much emphasis on their exposure as revenue generators by expectant onlookers.
So this weekend's expedition was somewhat unexpected. And wildly different to my preconceptions which were all exceeded, by a mile.
Edinburgh's zoo is simply splendid. Spanning an 82 acre park and boasting an impressive tree collection, it lives its mission statement: "to excite and inspire our visitors with the wonder of living animals, and so to promote the conservation of threatened species and habitats."
Perfectly situated upon a hill above the city, the views are spectacular and, together with the resident attractions, have been exciting visitors for just over a century.
Currently Scotland's second most popular paid-for tourist attraction (after the Castle) - it's easy to see why it attracts over 600,000 visitors a year (with Yang Guang and Tian Tian, the Giant Pandas on a 10 year loan from China, receiving up to 2,500 people in a day).
The zoological research is far from hidden, and wandering around today I learnt a lot. Nearly all of the species we met this afternoon are on the endangered list and the zoo is keenly involved in captive breeding to sustain worldwide populations to ensure that generations to come also get to behold the wonderful variety of fish, foul and beasts with which we can (and should) share the planet.
It was the first zoo in the world to house and breed penguins, and the three breeds on display did not disappoint. 6 Gentoo penguins even came out of the enclosure voluntarily when invited to do so, and paraded in an orderly fashion, in front of an enthusiastic (and respectful) crowd of all ages.
We were truly privileged to see Yang Guang (or 'Sunshine') and Tian Tian (or 'Sweetie') - currently the only Giant Pandas in the UK - up and about (as they tend to sleep for upwards of 16 hours a day) and the guide shared with us a wealth of information about their solitary (and soporific) lifestyles, focused on eating up to 80kg of bamboo each day.
The Queensland koalas scored highly on my list, and I enjoyed watching a mother and baby casually climbing trees within their enclosure.
Whilst not without its critics, and perhaps not fitting with everyone's politics, the zoo gave me a different perspective and reminded me how diverse the world really is. Today's expedition felt a little like whirlwind tour of the globe, and I loved the glimpse I saw of the different strata of the animal kingdom. I loved the silent interactions I had with these strangers, some tall, others small, all going about their business undisturbed (and largely uninterested) by my presence.
I hear and I forget.
I see and I remember.
I do and I understand.
Confucius (551 BC - 479 BC)