Zoological inspiration

It’s been several years since I last visited a ZOO. Back then, I’ve decided the next time I do it, it’ll be in winter to have a bit different perspective. That single condition alone made it a wait of several years, though I was in no rush for that.

As a kid, I was taken to a ZOO quite often, by parents or grandmother. The fact I live relatively close to one made it easy-to-plan summer day. As I grew up, the entertainment part faded and I only returned there after some 10 years in what I believe was in 2013 (maybe 2012) – and made the above-mentioned proclamation.

Snow-covered suburb forest

Being in my early twenties and coming there alone (thus no constant “come on, let’s move to something else” of my sister), I remember I sat at the lion enclosure for almost an hour, observing both their behavior and anatomy. My stay was not that long back then – several enclosures were undergoing reconstruction to bring them up to 21st century standards: open space full of greenery instead of concrete pits.

Coal mine closed in 1994, turned into mining museum in 2000 (half-way through my walk)

So, now for the specific visit in the previous week: It was quite spontaneous as this winter proved to be unpredictable, more so here in the suburbs. Snow falling, piling up, then melting – sometimes all in a single day. Hence, I was on the ready once it fell again in the Sunday-Monday night and as the Monday-Tuesday night was cold enough to freeze it, decided to give it a go on Tuesday.

Also, one large advantage: winter visit made the place almost empty and quite serene, unlike the massive crowds during summer school holidays.

Sculpture of the extinct Megaloceros giganteus (giant deer) skeleton in the ZOO

As I said, I live relatively close to the local ZOO, so I took a back route (a half through the forest, half through the city’s outskirts) and the 6,75km walk (as said by my GPS) took me easy 55 minutes. Since taking public transport would require a detour and two transfers ending up at 40+ minutes, walking was only slightly slower.

Vulture warming up its wings in the morning sun (better photo angle prevented by surrounding trees)

I mentioned inspiration. Nature is an endless source of it and just observing might give you more insight than reading about it somewhere, but what I found helpful for me as a writer of fantasy is something different: Latin names of plants and animals. These, at least for me, can be adjusted to make a great elf name. Even long-extinct animals can help.

To be a bit specific: One character – an archer Marshal – had its name given by looking up what trees were used to carve bows and then finding a Latin name I could twist a bit for my purpose. Another one – an equestrian that makes an appearance in the eventual third book – was named Eohippus, after an ancient predecessor of present-time equines.

Snow-covered walk-through bird exhibit

Winter visit was also the source of a few surprises – such as seeing that the zebras did not really mind the snow while its natural predators (large felines) remained in the inside part of their enclosures. Coloring also had an impact – I almost overlooked the snowy owls who were well-masked by their color.

While there’s no doubt that ZOOs are mostly visited by parents with their children as a form of entertainment, they can serve as a place of education and inspiration, if you wish to find it there. Even if it’s far from natural habitat, seeing a bird’s wingspan or a feline’s musculature with your own eyes might put it into a better perspective than just reading about it. If you’re writing a book where animals have a role, it can be another point of your research (such as my mentioned hour-long watching of a lion pair). It can (as my observation of snowy owl this time) point out the ability to blend in the environment. It can lead you to think about the possible habitat and/or evolution of creatures in your book – even made-up creatures in fantasy.


I’ll wrap this post here. Had a visit to a ZOO or botanical garden helped you with inspiration or research for your book or gave you an unexpected idea? Have you ever thought about using Latin names of animals or plants for naming characters? Feel free to share your thoughts or ask questions.

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