Watching Saudi Arab youngsters eagerly follow the antics of a monkey, the swift grace of a gazelle, the monolithic movement of an elephant, or the nervous, to-and-fro pace of the grey desert wolves, one is reminded of the little girl who described her first trip to a zoo in five concise words:
"A zoo is for looking."
It's true enough that zoos are among the most likely places that a youngster can really get to feast his eyes. But most zoos, and the one at Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is no exception, are for listening too. The ears have their own field day. They can absorb a veritable "kaleidoscope" of sounds all orchestrated like background music in a movie, to make the seeing even more rewarding. Every sight has a sound all its own.
For example, it would be humorous enough when a solemn-faced baboon decides to do a handstand in order to attract the attention of two small boys watching the ostrich some distance away. But when that same simian in his upside-down position decides to add a little sound to his antics, the situation becomes a comedy. Mr. Monk gains everyone's attention in the near vicinity with his scream of scolding chatter that reverberates off tile and concrete in a great echoing surge.
Yes, the Riyadh Zoo is for listening too.
After a visitor has paid his entrance fee (about four cents) and bought some nuts to feed to the animals from a vendor near the gate, he's apt to walk a short distance through the attractively landscaped park setting and stop first to see the elephants. There are four of the mighty beasts, all gifts of Premier Nehru and the Indian people to King Saud of Saudi Arabia. Three of the mammoth creatures are of stolid personality, and they keep their audiences in awe with their size alone. Indian elephants generally give way in the size department to their wilder African cousins, but Indian elephants have been known to reach a height of 11 feet and a weight of almost eight tons.
Sultan, Riyadh's largest elephant, has great stained ivory tusks three and a half feet long. The huge beasts stand for hours swaying in their own ponderous rhythm that is turned into sound by the restless clanking of their leg chains. It's the lucky visitor who happens to hit the elephant shelter at the right moment, for he is treated to the highlight of zoo sound. In a flood of brassy, clarion tone that startles into respectful silence even the big cats, an elephant will lift his voice like a blasting trumpet as if to verify his high opinion of himself as the most powerful of the wild animals.
Another elephant, Rayyan, does more than trumpet. Rayyan is the zoo's scene-stealer. Rayyan makes very un-elephantlike sounds. He plays a harmonica—to the utter delight of both children and grown-ups—and during "intermissions" tucks the mouth organ into the tip-end curl of his trunk. After each "concert" Rayyan curtsies to his audience, gets down on all four knees, rolls over and plays "dead." fie gets a special bonus for his performance from appreciative fans in the form of peanuts, watermelon and sunflower seeds—all supplement to his regular daily allotment of alfalfa, served up to him by a doting Indian trainer. But Rayyan appears to be even more delighted with the incessant cries of "kamaan, kamaan" (more, more) that youngsters shout to this bulkiest of performers at the finish of one of his "numbers."
Not far from the high-fenced elephant shelter is the monkey house. This is a slow place to visit. Little hands tug at grownups to slow the pace of passing through this wonderworld of antics. And the hairy figures behind the bars swinging from their tails and flipping in a thousand tricks are just as interested in the humans as the humans in them. The building is filled with the circus noises of squealing, chattering monkeys and children mimicking them. Here, children, as they do all over the world, find a favorite simian, name it and bring their tidbits of food straight to this chattering little creature who usually shows its appreciation with a ludicrous smile.
Just before feeding time at Riyadh Zoo there is a tenseness that hangs over the grounds. Everyone feels it, animals and visitors alike. It can be seen especially in the restlessness of the big cats. And the more nervous the cats become, the more they pace and flick their tails and cough out their short growls, the more the other creatures are affected. It is a time for onlookers to keep a respectful distance. For they will receive nothing but baleful glares from these pairs of feline eyes which at feeding time seem to revert to memories of the jungle where life and death depended entirely on the alertness of the instincts. Great ringing roars rock the area as the cats scold hurrying keepers who are already doing their best to slip chunks of meat between the cage bars. A lion will snarl at a companion to contest ownership of the choicer piece of meat and then retreat as his cage mate cuffs him a good one to keep him in line. A tiger will poise snarling in spring position over a piece of food as though he suspects a plot underfoot to take it away from him. A lion often coughs, too, when he is hungry or just before he eats, much like a polite but hungry guest at a dinner party clearing his throat for attention. With each roar from the cats' quarters come answering calls from lesser beasts made irritable by the nagging, stentorian bellows.
In one cage constantly moving grey wolves snarl and snap in vexatious anger as the sounds of the wilderness set them on edge. Like mean, lean-looking great dogs they pace their cage, brushing each other as they pass. Only rarely do they howl in captivity, however, and almost never do jackals utter their high-pitched doglike yelps. These sounds are no longer necessary to their sheltered lives. In natural habitat, the howling and yelping is a way of broadcasting hunger or attracting a mate.
Beyond the wolves' cage, there's a bear, a normally quiet, shuffling fellow that grunts and growls softly to himself as he lumbers around. At feeding time, when he is made especially aware of an empty stomach, by the irritableness of his zoomates, his bawling tone can be ear shattering.
Another enormous but short-tempered beast is the rhinocerous that surprisingly enough makes mooing, cow-like sounds. Sometimes he just squeaks, much to the disappointment of zoo visitors who probably feel that such a powerful-looking beast would best show his might by charging about in a fit of anger. But he spends most of his waking hours placidly snuffling with vacuum-cleaner thoroughness over his patch of ground for leftover grass and alfalfa.
Whether it's feeding time or not, the hyena is probably the most inconsiderate animal in the zoo. Frequently, when all is quiet and even small boy visitors feel the need to talk in low tones, the hyena will let loose a hysterical, ghostly cackle that sounds so much like a human laugh out of control.
Strangely enough, it is a bird—the ostrich—that sounds quite fearsome and eerie to the zoo-goer who isn't familiar with his call. The male is particularly noisy. He will let out a long, bawling note similar to a lion's muffled roar and also thump his feet in a staccato-like "boom-boom-boom" that has all the power and reverberation of a bass drum. Another bird, the desert buzzard, usually stands around on one leg—according to his whim of the moment—surveying his audience with supercilious, beady eyes, occasionally grunting and emitting faint, reptilian hisses if disturbed.
As for the "quiet" zoo inhabitants, the giraffe, contrary to popular notion, has been known to make faint, mooing sounds, so is not entirely voiceless. The oryx, too, (a type of antelope) seldom makes a sound, but if in extreme pain or if fleeing for its life, can utter a piercing, bawling cry, I much like the cry of the dainty, limpid-faced gazelle. At Riyadh Zoo they rarely make a sound at all other than that of a contented munching of leaves and twigs.
One animal not heard or seen at the zoo is the camel. There are no camels here: that honored and ancient beast has yet to change from a necessity to a curiosity in Arab life.
Actually, zoo animals neither act the same nor make as much noise as they might in their natural habitat; in the zoo there is no rule of survival of the fittest—no fear, ho quick, violent death, no overwhelming pangs of hunger, no competition when seeking a mate to cause them to give vent to voice.
Since 1957 when the Riyadh Zoo was built by King Saud for the public, the most familiar zoo sounds of all are those of pleasure, of laughter, of excitement. Most of these sounds are made by wide-eyed children—the same the world over—who derive so much joy and knowledge from their trips to the Riyadh Zoo, where there is much to look at—and much to listen to.