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About A Week: Caged Kings

"Creatures born to be free should never be caged,'' says Peter Hinchliffe.

The lions of Longleat were cold, sleepy, not the least bit interested in receiving visitors. They huddled beneath an open-sided shed. Twelve of the royal beasts, lying all in a lump on a bleak afternoon. And not one open eye between the lot of them.

We sat in our car, 50ft away, waiting, watching, hoping they would stir, walk around, put on a small show. Nothing happened. Twelve pairs of eyes remained firmly closed.After five minutes, we drove on.

When we glanced back, the lions were still slumbering, indifferent to the fact that we had been there.

So much for wildlife drama! Though the sight of twelve lions in a lump will linger in the memory.

Circus proprietor Jimmy Chipperfield persuaded Lord Bath to join him in establishing Britain's first safari park. Mr Chipperfield had some difficulty in explaining the idea to his Lordship. "Won't the cages have to be awfully big if cars are to drive into them?" Lord Bath asked.

"No, no," said Chipperfield. "It's the people who are going to be in the cages. Their cars. The lions are going to be free."

So lions were turned out onto a wooded Wiltshire hillside on Lord Bath's estate. To be followed by tigers, giraffes, elephants, zebras, rhinos, monkeys and wolves.

Millions and millions of humans have since driven by to inspect the Longleat menagerie.

I've been twice. On the first occasion, we were richly entertained. A band of merry monkeys tried to do a thorough demolition job on a yuppy's BMW. They tugged at the windscreen wipers. Chewed bits off the spoiler, Played hot-foot all over the expensive paintwork.

The car owner banged his head on the steering wheel. The scene was as rich as anything in an old black-and-white Keystone comedy. Enough to make a statue laugh.

The Longleat lions are by no means tame. They have established rules of conduct for visitors. If cars stay on the tarmac roads, the lions pay no attention to them. If cars venture off the road, they enter lion territory. The big cats immediately surround them. Any human crazy enough to step out of a car-cage would be promptly attacked.

On our second visit to Longleat, the only things stirring were a couple of monkeys and a camel. The monkeys were perched on a somnolent buffalo's back, eating its fleas. The camel came down onto the road to give us a snooty look. No creature gives a snootier look than a camel.

I found myself doing a Johnny Morris, imagining the camel's thoughts.

"Quiet in here today. Boring. Very. The cold weather seems to keep the quality away. I haven't seen a single Mercedes all day. "What's that you're driving? A 1300cc hatchback? Say no more."

The camel wandered off, wearing a disgusted expression.

On and on we drove, past clusters of torpid animals. We were thinking deep thoughts. Such as whether it is proper to keep equatorial animals outdoors in a climate which frequently passes itself off as winter for eight months of the year.

Or if humans can count themselves as truly civilised if they cage up wild animals to form a peep-show.

I am one of the lucky ones. I have come face to face with lions and elephants in their native terrain. When I was working in Kenya, I helped to count the animals in Nairobi National Park.

Now there is a wildlife park! Forty-four square miles of natural bush country, opening out onto the Athi Planes. The animals come and go as they please.

Once a month, on a Sunday morning, the park warden and a team of volunteers count the animals in the park. They divide the huge area up into blocks, then criss-cross these blocks in Land Rovers, counting all they see.

I sat beside the warden as we bounced and jounced over rough country. My job was to enter the numbers and varieties of the animals we saw on squared-off sheets of paper.

"...Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen," the warden would count.

Glancing up, I could see perambulating shapes on a ridge in the middle-distance.

"Er... nineteen what?" I asked in embarrassment.

"Nineteen wildeebeest," said the warden, giving me a bewildered look.

How was he to know that the biggest wild creature I'd seen before going to Kenya was a fox.

The game parks of Kenya give you an idea of what the Garden of Eden must have been like. The giant Tsavo park spreads and sprawls over 8,000 square miles. You can be all alone, all day. Just you, and the animals.

London Zoo and Longleat are animal prisons. London Zoo is an Armley jail, an old-fashioned Victorian lock-up. Longleat is your modern open prison. Spacious. Plenty of light, and fresh air. But the high fences are still there.

A prison is a prison is a prison, no matter how attractive you make it.

Creatures born to be free should never be caged. Not so that humans can come and gawp at them.

I like seeing the big cats. All the other marvellous creatures of the wild. I continue to be attracted to places like Longleat against my better instincts.

And I end up feeling guilty for having allowed myself to become a prison visitor.

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