LEOPARD-PRINT leggings, a cheetah-patterned gilet, a zebra-striped bag and a leopard-effect hat:
my outfit may enrage the human fashion police, but it seems to be doing little to perturb the giraffes, lions, zebras and meerkats at Blair Drummond Safari Park. "Perhaps if you were covered in leopard pee, rather than leopard print, you might have more of an effect," suggests one of the keepers.
I am here to test a theory that made headlines last week: namely, that animal prints are confusing to wild beasts, which apparently have difficulty distinguishing tiger-striped sweaters from dangerous predators. Chessington World of Adventures in Surrey has banned visitors from wearing such prints, citing evidence that while some animals have tried to communicate with confusingly attired visitors, others have taken fright. From now on, visitors who turn up wearing inappropriate spots or stripes will be issued with grey boiler suits.
Asked if he is worried about this sartorial threat to animal welfare, Blair Drummond keeper Ben Houston appears sceptical. However, he agrees to participate in a small experiment, escorting one eccentrically attired woman to meet a variety of animals and see how troubled they seem. Would my gilet spook the zebras? Would the lions get restless and ravening at the sight of my zebra bag?
Not at all. Admittedly this is hardly a systematic review of research data on the response of mammals to textile print patterns as worn by members of the species homo sapiens. But, since a quick trawl of the internet reveals not one academic study on the subject, it will have to suffice.
First to appraise my fashion choices are giraffes Kelly, Keisha and Bella. I hover below their heads, wafting a leafy branch as a tempting snack. Their keeper, Zara Swan, is bemused by the Chessington theory. The giraffes like "what they know", she points out. When people come to help out at the zoo, they have to wear the same uniforms as the keepers - just because it's familiar. She does, however, recall that on Onesie Day last May, when staff donned animal-themed costumes for charity, one of the giraffes, Ruby, "seemed quite suspicious" about her zebra outfit. "The zebras were fine, though," she adds.
On Onesie Day about 100 people were on site, with no notable expressions of alarm from the animals. Equally, park staff see little reaction when they tour the premises dressed in lion, tiger and bear mascot costumes.
Feeding these giraffes, it becomes clear they aren't going to let any fashion nasty get in the way of snack time. Spot the zebra seems equally uninterested in the fact that I might look like a strangely upright leopard. Libby the lion is far more fascinated in keeper Houston than my attempt to jog backwards and forwards with my tantalising zebra bag. And the park's meerkats need no more than a few delicious mealworms to tempt them to perform acrobatics on my leopard hat.
Blair Drummond has few rules for visitors. Big signs warn people not to chase the animals. Dogs are not allowed. There are, of course, areas (such as the lion enclosure) in which you're not allowed to get out of your car. On the day I visit, a radio message warns that someone has managed to drive in past the front gate with a small dog on their knee: a fact that's a little more concerning than someone managing to get past the bouncers with wild dog jeggings concealed beneath her skirt.
A piece of footage from a US zoo went viral last year showing a baby boy in a zebra-striped hoodie playing beside a glass enclosure in which a lioness pawed the ground, looking as if she would like to gobble the child. Houston thinks it's unlikely the hoodie was tempting her. "When I've taken family groups into the lions, when caged, they stare at the kids. I think it's their size, rather than what they're wearing or how they're acting. Kids are snack-size."
"Lions go for movement and smells," says Brian Reid, who's been a lion-keeper at Blair Drummond for 20 years. "A print is irrelevant." Animal patterns, he points out, are actually a form of camouflage, so they're unlikely to have much effect on wild creatures.
So is Chessington's ban merely this week's silly story: a publicity stunt, perhaps, for their recently opened Zufari park? Certainly, it was reported worldwide, in everything from Time magazine's online site to Indian newspapers. Meanwhile, many UK zoos and safari parks have declared they have no policy against such prints, and don't expect to instate one.
But not everyone is sceptical. Robert Hilsenroth, executive director of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians, agrees that "a leopard print ... might excite some gazelles, because they recognise inherently that they should avoid them". He asserted last week that "every zoo in the world is going to start looking at this."
Who knows, perhaps the Chessington keepers are on to something and one day their theory will be confirmed by research. In the meantime, at least it is having the positive effect of making people consider that these creatures are sentient beings rather than merely a source of entertainment.
It also appeals to the notion that animals don't know the difference between a zebra and a onesie. And you only have to watch Spot, Libby and Bella to know that's nonsense.
We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis. If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules, which are available here.
Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.