Going to the zoo

I have always had an extreme fondness for all things wildlife. Given My Family and Other Animals at an early age, I spent my childhood asking my parents for kakapos and colobuses and making pets out of snails, woodlice, pigeons with broken wings and once (and spectacularly ill-advisedly) several large black slugs. I spent many happy hours watching David Attenborough wrangle gorillas and fall over pheasants, and bored my family to tears explaining why pangolins were so fascinating.

The discovery, then, that Douglas Adams not only agreed with me about the importance of animals but had actually spent time visiting rare species and making jokes about them on a show called Last Chance to See sent me into transports of excitement. Although I missed the original Last Chance to See radio programme because I was busy teething and learning to walk, the book Adams wrote as a result (identically titled) was nevertheless an enormously important part of my childhood.

Finding out last month that the BBC were making a new series of the show made me feel, therefore, roughly the same way as many people would if Michael Jackson rose from the grave tomorrow clutching a brand new album in his hand.

For the non-obsessed, the format of the original Last Chance to See was simple and also deeply depressing. Douglas Adams and his friend, naturalist Mark Carwardine, chose six species so close to extinction that it seemed likely they would not make it into the new year, and travelled to remote parts of the world to find and comment on them one last time. It really did turn out to be last chance to see for one species, but the other five somehow managed to last twenty more years, leading the BBC to commission an update in which the two men retrace their steps and comment on each species’ progress or otherwise.

There is, obviously, a huge and very sad problem with this premise – Douglas Adams, the driving force behind the original show, died suddenly in 2001. While he would presumably still be extremely interested in reappearing on the update, science has yet to catch up with sci fi and so he has to be considered as out of the running. He has been replaced, therefore, by the UK’s very own TV uncle Stephen Fry.

In the absence of Adams, Fry turns out to be a very good second best indeed. Mark Carwardine is a sweet, shy little man with a passion for being very quiet and taking photographs of animals. Next to him, Stephen Fry looms like an enormous and very jolly aircraft carrier. He tromps through the undergrowth, treading on things and generally being bothersome. In the first episode he manages to break his arm in several places while getting off a boat, and later in the series he tries to feed an egg to an aye-aye, puts the egg down and then promptly treads on it (the egg, not the aye-aye). While marching through the jungle on the way to see gorillas he remarks that his body feels like “a binliner full of yoghurt”, and he spends several scenes of each episode trying to get signal on his iPhone.

This makes Last Chance to See a nature documentary like no other. It’s less aerial shots of a herd of zebra surging across the African plain and more Mark and Stephen getting covered in mud and making rude jokes about dolphins. Despite their differences, the two of them are obviously deeply fond of each other, and their odd-couple relationship is one of the things that makes the show so charming. Mark is on hand to give awed and earnest commentary about the history and biology of a species, and Stephen is there to ham it up, pretend to know nothing (I’m not so sure this is accurate, the man presents QI, after all) and fall over tree roots.

The species they present are just as strange and amusing, and Fry’s commentary makes them seem ridiculously engaging. There’s the slow and thoughtful manatee, which lives on the bottom of the Amazon River; the aye-aye of Madagascar, which smells horribly and looks like a skinny, electrocuted baby; the Komodo dragon, which produces poisonous drool and would be quite happy to eat you; and the kakapo, a fat New Zealand parrot which is flightless, bright green and cunningly stands very still when attacked. In sixty minutes you manage to become extremely attached to each of them, and finding out, after all this, that there are 125 kakapo left in the world and the manatee is almost extinct in the wild is extraordinarily disturbing, like hearing about the terminal illness of, if not a friend, at least a close acquaintance. It’s hard not to suddenly develop an interest in conservation, not least because Stephen Fry likes it, and Stephen Fry is one of those things that are so brilliantly uncool that they go full circle and become cool again, like floral dresses or glasses with large rims.

For my part, I hope that it does become fashionable to start sending wads of money to wildlife charities. This is not only because I’m yearning for another Last Chance to See in twenty years’ time, but because if all these animals do happily end up becoming as common as cats, then my lifelong dream of owning my very own kakapo might become a reality. And I really do want to own a kakapo.


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