The day out to Edinburgh Zoo was supposed to be a special treat for little Yvonne Taylor. Through the gates she skipped, excited at the prospect of wandering around the vast park, thrilled to see the exotic creatures, the big cats – giant, more ferocious versions of her pets at home – and the cheeky monkeys up close.
Instead, what she saw left the little girl wondering what kind of hellish place she’d been brought to.
“I was little, probably only five-years old. I adored animals but I remember thinking the zoo was really quite a sad place,” she recalls.
“I remember seeing the polar bear, Mercedes, and feeling quite sorry for her. Then I went back years later – after her partner had died after choking on a plastic toy – and Mercedes was still there like she was when I was a kid, in the same place, still pacing back and forth, back and forth.
“It was just very, very sad.”
What should have been a fun day out turned into a poignant childhood experience – one that ignited a lifelong passion for man’s fellow creatures. So much so that later years would see the Edinburgh-based campaigner strip off her clothes and run, with just an anti-fur protest banner covering her modesty, through streets around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
When she went to Kazakhstan to help encourage people to consider swapping their traditional horsemeat meals for a vegan salad, Yvonne – acutely aware that the image would make headlines around the world – did it with the use of a lettuce leaf bikini, a broad smile and not much else.
Then there have been the countless times when, as one of animal rights group PETA’s highest-profile and most astute campaigners, she’s stormed fashion show catwalks to highlight designers’ use of exotic skins and furs.
She’s even been in a highly-publicised debate with the Pet Shop Boys in a bid to encourage them to change their name to one that’s more animal friendly, and persuaded Simon Cowell to appear in a video appealing to dog owners not to lock their pets in hot cars.
Little wonder then that, of all people, Edinburgh-based Yvonne is the least likely to be looking forward to the arrival of what, for most, is the biggest zoo event in Scotland for decades.
Indeed, when giant pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guan touch down from their Bifengzia panda base in Ya’an in China, Yvonne will be wishing they’d never come.
“Don’t get me wrong, I adore pandas,” she insists. “But Edinburgh Zoo is a business and it’s a huge pull for a zoo to have pandas. It means more visitors and that increases the zoo’s income.
“Let’s not think this is anything to do with protecting pandas. It’s a commercial money-making deal. Nothing more.
“And if anyone is serious about breeding and conserving giant pandas, they would keep them in the wild where they stand a chance, and give money instead to the programmes in China that work with local communities providing alternatives to the practices that damage pandas’ habitat.”
An agreement to bring the two giant pandas to Edinburgh was signed in January. They are in quarantine in preparation for their journey and when they finally arrive in Edinburgh, they’ll be the first giant pandas to live in the UK for 17 years.
But for Yvonne, 38, who has spent more than 20 years battling for animal rights across the globe – from the catwalks of Milan to the football World Cup in South Korea where she sat in a cage to highlight cat and dog meat markets – their arrival on her Edinburgh doorstep is a giant leap backwards in efforts to save the species.
“Pandas are the rock stars of the conservation world,” she adds. “Wherever they go, they draw the crowds. But it’s worth remembering there has never been any successful reintroduction of pandas born in captivity back to the wild.
“And the pandas that come to Edinburgh Zoo will simply be exhibits to draw in money from the public.”
She remains tightlipped on what, if any, PETA campaign might accompany the giant pandas’ arrival. Whether she’ll use the event to repeat some of her earlier stunts, only she knows. But it’s fair to say that thanks to that early childhood experience, she’s certainly no fan of zoos – or, for that matter, the circus.
“I remember a school friend inviting me to the circus for her birthday treat and sitting the whole time with my back to the ring because I didn’t want to see the animals,” she recalls. “I would have been quite young then too, so obviously I knew from a young age that what I was seeing wasn’t right.”
Later she became a member of Advocates for Animals and led various campaigns aimed at raising awareness of the fur trade and animal rights, before joining PETA seven years ago and making an instant impression with a series of dramatic and often naked protests.
“The thing is I’m no supermodel,” she groans “If someone had said years ago I’d take my clothes off in public I’d have said never in a million years, I’m not that kind of person. Afterwards my friends will say they can’t believe that I, of all people, did it, it’s so out of character.”
Nevertheless, strip she has done more than once, all with the aim of highlighting the cruelty of the fur trade to the horrors of meat markets.
Stripping in China led to her being deported from the country, while in Mumbai she fled from a fashion show having stormed the stage to the outrage of the audience.
More recently, however, she’s stayed under wraps, working instead with some of the world’s biggest names in entertainment to highlight cruelty, animal rights and the horrors of the fur trade, even persuading some of them to strip off too for the cause.
Most recently she persuaded Bill Oddie to dress as Santa and picket posh London store Fortnum and Mason in a bid to encourage them to scrap sales of foie gras, a follow-on from a successful campaign to persuade Selfridges to ditch their stocks led by James Bond, Sir Roger Moore.
“He was amazing,” says Yvonne, who sent to St Serf’s School in Wester Coates Gardens. “We had him pictured with a sign that said ‘Boycott Selfridges, foie gras is cruel’ which we placed next to the food hall and within 24 hours of it going up the shop had said take it down and they’d remove foie gras from the shelves. That’s the power of celebrity.”
* For more information about PETA, go to www.peta.org.uk
Preparations for panda pair
ZOO bosses say the arrival of two giant pandas, Tian Tian and Yang Guan, in Edinburgh, is an important move for the conservation of the species.
Edinburgh would be only the eighth zoo in the Western hemisphere to care for the endangered animals and it is hoped they will produce cubs during their time in the Capital.
The giant panda population in the wild is around 1500 and is said to be sustained due to research being carried out by zoos.
As part the agreement with the Chinese government, Edinburgh Zoo will collaborate on research projects, while the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland will provide substantial funding to support giant panda conservation projects in the wild.
Arrangements for their arrival in Edinburgh include a custom-built, bullet-proof glass enclosure, bamboo shipped from Amsterdam and even their own specially-commissioned tartan.