Words by: Geoff Ferres Photography provided by Melbourne Zoo
The zoo at night is a magical place. The sun has set, the crowds are gone and the animals are quiet. From the brightly lit boulevards to the shadowy pavilions, fond memories of childhood excursions are recalled while a tantalising window to new and unexpected interpretations is opened. A surprising sense of re-discovery is evoked and it is this feeling that lies at the heart of ‘I, Animal’, a unique theatrical collaboration between the Melbourne Zoo and `The Border Project` performance ensemble in support of endangered wildlife conservation.
Arriving on a warm early Spring night, we joined a group of around 20 Melbournians and out-of-town visitors milling outside the zoo gates. The ‘I, Animal’ brochures are pretty coy on exactly what goes on, so no-one really knew what they were in for. Having secured tickets at the booth it was on to introductions from our super-cheery zoo keeper guides and some casual catering. Pre-wrapped sandwiches and vino in plastic cups was a sure bet to get the group in a suitably participatory mood. It was then that we were issued with our very own ‘Zoe’ – a cased iPhone to pop around our necks, pre-loaded with an interactive tour app. Right from the get go, the Zoe is an integral part of the experience – a count down to kick off is the first thing you notice and, as one thing leads to another, this bit of kit proves to be a surprisingly effective part of the show. Zoe is engaging, amusing, perfectly timed and adds a wee bit of an adult dimension to the narrative of the evening.
Once the count down hits zero it’s all on and, straight away, the group is split. ‘I, Animal’ isn’t just one show – it’s two! – and Fate (in the form of Zoe) will cast you as it sees fit into one group or the other. Well before I’d properly got my head around who my new group of companions were, we were off – following Zoe’s confident instructions as she began our journey to see the graceful, wonderful and truly weird of the zoo’s collection. While most of the larger animals seem to call it quits after sundown (there was plenty of evidence of some serious mammalian zzz’s), most of the critters we visited were up and at ’em big time, scampering about their pens in a not-quite-choreographed kind of way.
Apart from the usual savanna suspects, we were lucky enough to be introduced to a couple of seriously bizarre characters: the Peccary, an omnivorous native American pig that’s equally cute and deadly, and the Tapir, resembling a horse-elephant and renowned in Japanese myth as a stealer of nightmares. As unlikely as these ark-escapees were, the animals themselves are just the start. With Zoe’s engaging storyline and a eclectic range of theatrical interventions (including some great low-pressure audience participation), there is a lot of thought provoking fun to be had. In this surreal night-time setting, ‘I, Animal’ prompts you to consider the world through the animals’ eyes … if you’re anything like me, that’s not something you’d normally commit a lot of time to! At one point, a few minutes are even put aside for a little bit of quiet reflection, which is surprisingly very welcome and peaceful.
The final stop on our journey is a real treat – a ride on the zoo’s restored antique carousel, grilled marshmallows over open fires and a makeshift bar. Bopping up on down on a painted horse, my evening of childhood reminiscence truly came full circle.
‘I, Animal’ breathed new life into my perception of the zoo and was hugely enjoyable. Highly recommended.
For more information about I Animal, please click here.