On a hot afternoon where a heavy, white sky threatened rain, we inched through the traffic in Medan, dodging pedestrians as they darted in front of us in their hurry. Already tense with sickening foresight, we stepped out of the air-conditioned safety and sidestepped the women selling peanuts for the monkeys. Withdrawing into a silence that might insulate my mind, I followed everyone else, matching their slow, reluctant footsteps as they moved towards the frantic siamang song that split the humid air. They were quiet when we reached them, faces pressed against the black metal that kept them in place. Passing families threw peanuts at them and still they stared, eyes fixed on the trees beyond us as we fixed ours on the dirty water and the concrete floor.
Behind us, a lone Japanese macaque paced, stopping only to snatch peanut missiles from the air with detached resignation. His neighbours, lanky storks picking their way around their cage on impossible stilt-like legs, cawed in competition with the aggressive buzz of the flies that formed a heaving black carpet on their forgotten tray of uneaten fish.
On we walked, falling into step behind an emaciated horse who wandered dispiritedly, her halter dragging on the ground a reminder that nobody cared. In a cage barely bigger than his body, another male macaque paced, emanating a fear that seeped into my stomach even as it compelled me to look away.
We found the orangutans, flame hair unnatural against bleak concrete as they sat on the ground waiting for nothing. The younger one, alone in a space too big and bare, clung uncertainly to the metal gate, resting tentatively on spindly legs and taking in his tiny world with fearful eyes. Behind the iron bars of his box around the corner, Pongky watched impassively, one eye white with age. His long fingers reached occasionally towards us, then curled away again as he turned to the side and looked back into the dark. He chose a piece of plastic from the collection strewn across the floor, and chewed on it carefully, thoughtfully, with a gentleness that belied his strength. He was still there as we walked away, and he watched us go with an acceptance born of inevitability. He was still there when we got home that night, and he is still there now.
We wanted to leave the zoo then; we were sad and ashamed and felt claustrophobic in the cloying atmosphere of heat and the approaching end of lives that were not really being lived at all. We passed the tigers on our way out, and none of us had ever seen a cat lie flat and motionless in stagnant water before. We passed the sun bears, and as the clouds broke their silence, muffling the continuous roars of fear, the repeated nodding and retching of the smallest of the group burned itself on our minds.
We walked away in the rain, making hopeless small talk in a futile attempt to quiet the noise in our minds. We knew we were in a place where animals wait to die, and we knew it was not the only one.
My thanks go to Andrew Walmsley for the images in this piece.