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Christmas at the Zoo - the Flaming Lips

Manger definition: "A box or trough in a stable or cow house, from which horses or cattle eat." - Shorter Oxford English Dictionary 1983 edition.

Yesterday we took my 3 year old granddaughter to the Rare Breeds Centre, near Ashford in Kent. It's something that should be crap, but is the opposite, is wonderful. It's hard to describe what exactly it is but I'll try: it's a farm that looks after rare domestic livestock and puts them on display so that children get close up and stroke them in a rural environment. The animals are looked after well, and are visibly healthy and contented.

It seems particularly appropriate at Christmas time to visit somewhere that is effectively a giant manger and not only suffers little children but positively encourages them into close proximity with the animals.

The Centre has various breeds of rare, fluffy and sometimes exceedingly giant rabbits and guinea pigs happily passing the time on hay bails within easy reach of passing three year olds, chickens of many colours and hues, traditional and exotic, as well as both inquisitive and indifferent goats, shaggy friendly- looking cattle and loads of pigs and energetic piglets - something they presumably would not have had at the original new testament manger. They also have some extraordinary large owls whose eyes seem to pierce your soul as you gaze, hypnotised, back at them.

Especially for December they had a Christmas Grotto, complete with a flatulent Santa, two spritely and amusing elves ("before we start, we must run you through the elf and safety procedures") and a terrific but (unintentionally I'm sure) decidedly scary post "Scream" silent snowman. The food on offer was good and we all had a great day out. I'd recommend it to anyone with children, a happy, healthy, tactile, outdoor experience that celebrates the diversity of life.

Once, many years ago, I took my two oldest children, when they were both under five, to London Zoo on Remembrance Sunday. It seemed a good idea, to avoid the crowds. When 11 o'clock came round, it was announced on the tannoy and people were asked to observe the obligatory minute's silence. All around us, the animals kept on with their chattering, hooting, lowing, roaring, squawking and general waterhole conversations. For a moment, in the middle of London, if you closed your eyes, it was as though there were no humans, no wars, no pollution. It seemed the right place to be.

We happened to be standing by the wolves' enclosure where a few mangy-looking specimens gazed at us mournfully through red eyes. Never have I seen animals look so defeated and dejected as those wolves, who from time to time glanced at one another conspiratorially, as though they were planning an escape, hopeless though their chances were.


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