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Since it is no longer possible to tour workhouses and insane asylums, the zoo is perhaps the most unpleasant institution to remain open for public inspection. I hold the humanist prejudice that animals are little more than mindless machines, but it is hard to be cheered by this when faced with the sheer drooping despondency of caged animals. Yet the Cairngorms’ Highland Wildlife Park (HWP), which is run by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, has always struck me as a quirky alternative to the regular zoo. It glows with Highland air and spacious enclosures.

The days in which the HWP held mostly animals which were native to the Scottish Highlands are long gone. The agreed definition of “Highland” now encompasses all the mountains and tundra of the upper hemisphere, but we are still left with a droll assortment of the B-list exotic: yak instead of elephants, owls instead of chimps, and a red panda instead of the celebrity variety.

It cost over seventy pounds for five of us to enter. Have we bought the place? Can we have sex with the animals?

We are standing in front of an enclosure which is filled with ropes and climbing apparatus, but instead of a monkey, we are watching the antics of what looks like an ordinary domestic cat. This is not any old cat, however, for the notice insists that this beast, the Scottish wildcat, claims a completely separate ancestry from those which were introduced to our shores by the Romans. But compared to the bombastic array of pedigree cats which one meets in my social circles, this genetically distinguished specimen looks like just another tabby.

Scraps of meat have been tossed on to the roof of the cage and the only way for the cat to get at this food is to leap for it, to hang from the ceiling by its claws for a while pondering its descent, and to then drop to the floor, with its head smacking off beams and branches, to land, as all cats traditionally do, on its feet. This cat must be a lady, for in the adjoining cage a tom is pacing in steady, angry circles. The tom mews at us to unlock the door between the two enclosures, and his cry sounds like that of any domestic cat trapped in any suburban interior.

Aside from the red pandas, these cats are the most popular exhibit. Whole families stand transfixed. It is too much – too surreal – we have paid seventy pounds to stare at a pair of tabby cats.

The accompanying notice describes how a local clansman has adopted the wildcat as a heraldic emblem, because he thinks that they embody the warlike spirit of the Highlands. Meow!

We pass an enclosure in which an owl squats in a open space which looks a little like a barnyard, with the owl as its uncanny fat hen. I wonder what the owl would taste like if roasted for a Sunday dinner table.

The beavers live in a quagmire, which is spread below a bridged walkway. They are absent today – perhaps the HWP hire them out to children’s parties – but they are possibly resting in their island lodges. This is a scene of complete devastation – an unsightly tip, strewn with detritus, with odd structures heaped up senselessly, buildings created by beings with no concept of architecture. Imagine the worst DIY disaster that you have ever seen, and then times it by a hundredfold. The remaining trees have been clad in wire skirts, to suggest to the beavers that they really should stop. In the evolutionary race, the beavers should be commended for effort, but they ultimately reach too far.

Next are the Japanese snow monkeys: grim-faced little men who sit about dejectedly, like the residents of a care home. But when they look up, their eyes are bright and deep with an unnerving intelligence. A lone infant seems to have been laden with all of this community’s energy, and it capers about glumly. Climbing frames have been erected opposite to the snow monkey enclosure, inviting an unflattering comparison of the stoical monkeys and the riotous human children.

Two Amur tigers traipse back and forth, to and fro, baggy and floppy as if dressed in coats a size too big. There is something very declarative about their stroppy mechanical walking and its pointed pointlessness. Another tiger watches apathetically from afar. As with women, it is probably difficult to know what could please these tigers, but for now their creator would hardly smile his work to see. I have never seen a tiger happy in captivity and perhaps they are just not made for it.

We survey a ravine which is entirely emptied of polar bears, and this adds an unfortunate emphasis to the series of accompanying posters which warn about the looming extinction that they face due to coal-fired power stations and televisions left on standby. The star polar bear is called Mercedes, because her reincarnation as a European zoo exhibit was partly financed by the famous manufacturer of petrol-guzzling cars, raising a rather obvious irony. But it is a mercy that she was not rescued by Landrover or Volkswagen.

Although Mercedes appeared to be absent, once back in Edinburgh I learned that she was actually dead. The decrepit arthritic bear had been put to sleep a few days previously. There was no clue that she was dead – perhaps the other animals should have been dressed in black armbands – and it seems curious that her new £70,000 enclosure, which had been constructed by army volunteers, was originally dedicated to such an ailing exhibit. Yet it still holds a younger and more virile polar bear called Walker, whom we later spotted from the main reserve.

As with the beavers and the polar bear, the Pallas cat appears to be absent. It is like a puzzle in an old-fashioned comic book, and after concentrating on the tank for a while, one makes out an obscure tuft of white hair on an overhanging rock, possibly indicating the presence of a sleeping cat.

The best thing in the HWP is the red panda: a luxuriously coloured monkey-cat, which creeps along in slow, careful steps, looking very wise and whiskered like an Oriental philosopher, but also as if it has not fully woken up yet. One is asleep high in a silver birch, fixed like a bird’s nest, whilst the other remains below to greet the tourists. There is a happy keeper who feeds it fruit, a crowd of happy children asking questions, and the incessant gnashing of parents’ cameras.

The red panda looks shiny and uncomfortably cute, as if it was built by Pixar rather than Mother Nature. Whereas giant pandas are dispatched around the world on Chinese diplomatic missions, the walkway to the red panda enclosure is decked with Buddhist prayer flags, and it seems that the red panda has been appointed as a figure of dissent to Chinese hegemony. Perhaps if there were giant pandas in the HWP, they would annex the red pandas’ enclosure and declare martial law.

The main reserve is supposed to be a safari park, in which one drives amongst the great herds of the plains, but it is rather desolate and the herds are a little forlorn. There may be a tribe of Indians at large within the reserve, who are gradually thinning the herds. The camels and yak wander about elsewhere, at the entrance to the HWP. The European bison looks mysterious and otherworldly: half cow, half dinosaur, with a grizzled prehistoric block of compost for a head, and so much of its body comprised of head and neck that it must take great dexterity to avoid tipping over. Only the bison’s dainty horns have any menace, and there is otherwise none of the synthetic danger of a safari park.

The wild grandeur of the Cairngorms looms over the HWP, and when I first visited the collection as a child, part of its mystery came from the suggestion that the exhibited animals roamed wild in the overhanging mountains, or at least in mountains similar to the ones overhead. It is very rare and a little magical to glimpse something like a capercaillie in the wild, and HWP had seemed to have anthologised every possible one of these magical moments. Today the HWP looks like an eccentrically themed and understocked zoo, and we saw only about two thirds of the advertised animals (although in several cases due to our own blundering). The HWP should dedicate itself anew to championing the bear and the boar, the eagle and the fox, and all things bright and beautiful in the history of the Scottish Highlands.