WHEN a red panda escaped from Belfast Zoo a few years back, it got John Gray thinking.
The former Linenhall librarian sat up all night pondering the adventures of the wee animal in the gardens of North Belfast – maybe even in his own.
And by the time dawn broke, he had his story written – ‘The Red Panda Who Escaped from the Zoo’. “I let my imagination run riot,” John told Dúlra this week. “They’re delightful wee creatures and you could only imagine what it got up to and I thought it would make a great story for children.”
John had written two children’s books many years ago – but he noticed something had changed in the intervening years: the city’s Irish language community had flourished. And so he commissioned a professional translator to produce an Irish language version – ‘An Panda Rua a d’Éalaigh ón Zú’ will also be launched on Saturday along with the English one. The Irish version cost him £800 to publish – money he was happy to fork out.
“I could have waited months trying to get a grant,” he said. “But I have sufficient confidence in the enterprise and in the strength of the Irish language community that it’ll pay for itself.
“I don’t speak a word of Irish,” he admitted, “and I’m increasingly regretting this is the case. More and more of my friends are learning Irish and I’m realising more of my friends are sending their children to bunscoils.
“There’s obviously a demand for Irish literature, why wouldn’t you want to fulfil that?”
Gaelscoil Éanna Principal Mairéad Ní Chonghaile said her children would devour the book – the Glengormley school is just across the hillside from the zoo.
“It’s great to have such a lovely book where the story takes place in the area where the children live,” she said.
The book, beautifully illustrated by artist Beth McComish, has a “subliminal” message, says John – he hopes it will prompt the children who read it to ask questions about the role of zoos in the modern world.
“The book starts with the little red panda not happy in its enclosure, and we question how it came into captivity in the first place – its forebears had been captured in the jungle.
“It’s not Belfast’s Zoo’s fault – they got these animals from other zoos. But we can’t escape from that fact.”
John, the founding chair of the Cave Hill Conservation Campaign, is a long-standing critic of the role of zoos. “I’ve never attacked the zoo, but simply questioned the putting of wild animals in cages on the shadowy side of the Cave Hill. It’s a hostile environment halfway up a mountain for animals from tropical climes.
“The argument that zoos are preserving the last remaining rare animals is a bit of a fig leaf – their main function is a form of entertainment for humans to come and gawk at them. The zoo staff themselves are kind and they do their best.
“I think it would be better to create protected reserves where the animals come from rather than ship them here.
“With regard to our own rare species, we didn’t collect them in cages. The corncrake is a good example. The answer to its decline has been to try to preserve and recreate the landscape they need and to protect the habitats they breed in.”
He says that the arguments against zoos are gaining traction. “It used to be that there was just one lone voice on Belfast City Council, now Sinn Féin have brought forward a motion effectively calling for the closure of the zoo as is, and People Before Profit and the Greens are of the same opinion.
“I hope the new generations growing up will ask questions our generation didn’t.”
The books will be launched on Saturday, first at the Duncairn Centre on Antrim Road at 11am, and then the Cultúrlann on the Falls Road at 2.30pm.
• If you’ve seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.