x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

The animal planet in the world of children

Is a child's fascination with animals innate, or is it nurtured?

There's less than a block between my apartment and the office. Astrid and her mummy often meet me as I saunter home from work. On these warm and pleasant evenings, as the sky turns red and the call to prayer rings out, it becomes clear just how much Astrid has claimed this territory as her own.

The steps, stoops and atriums of different buildings have become her playground, which she clambers over and runs around on. People in different shops wave and smile as she goes past. The most intriguing relationships she has developed on these frequent journeys have not been with humans but with animals.

She knows the whereabouts of every cat who lives along this route and expects to meet each of them on every trip. If the big ginger cat with a gnarled ear, for example, is not prowling around outside the grocer's or laid out languorously beside a defunct and rusting air conditioning unit, Astrid stops to look for it.

She searches under cars and behind trees until, more often than not, she finds it skulking by the wheel arch of a parked car.

Sometimes one of the men who works in an electrical repair shop sees her looking and briskly shakes a box of cat food which he keeps just inside the door to his shop. As this sound rings out, cats suddenly emerge from all angles and converge on the cat biscuits freshly scattered on the ground.

Astrid is happy to see them, but she is also wary. She shuffles towards the group of feasting cats, inching closer and closer, until one of them looks up and notices her. Then she runs away and hides behind my leg for a few seconds before starting to move towards them again. All the time she is laughing with her hand outstretched as if to stroke them.

Her most regular and intimate feline relationship is with the kitten downstairs. It is almost cat-sized now, but just a few months ago it was tiny. A man from the apartment block next door looked after it in the first weeks of its life, feeding it milk from a bottle on the end of a metal contraption.

Now it lives outside the apartment block. Every time we leave our building, we have to go and greet this cat. Quickly Astrid becomes embroiled in her elaborate rituals of engagement, moving closer and backing away. It adds at least 10 minutes to any trip, but it is a pleasant 10 minutes.

This interest in these cats seems so natural. The way she looks at them and interacts with them appears almost to be instinctive. Yet is this fascination innate or has it been nurtured and developed during her brief life? To put it another way, which came first; the chicken or the egg?

Despite living in a city, animals pervade Astrid's world. Not real animals, with the exception of the cats, of course, but images and other representations.

Most of Astrid's presents at Christmas were connected in some way to animals. From the toy horse figure to the T-shirt with an owl on it, from the book with wombats as the protagonists to the film featuring dancing penguins, animals have quickly come to dominate Astrid's playtime realm and imaginative world.

Her daily encounters with feral cats help to give meaning and substance to an otherwise intangible relationship with the animal kingdom.

They are the last vestiges of wildlife in the city; more real than the talking creatures who inhabit the leaves of a book; more genuine than the caged beasts in a zoo.