A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future 
by David Hancocks.
California, 280 pp., £19.95, May 2001, 0 520 21879 5
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In his parks in 16th-century India, Akbar the Great employed personal doctors to look after his tigers, cheetahs, deer and five thousand elephants, and invited the populace at large to visit the animals: ‘Meet your brothers, take them to your hearts and respect them.’ But as David Hancocks colourfully describes, most precursors of the modern zoo have been the opposite of this, from the circuses of Rome to the travelling menageries of the 18th and 19th centuries, shuttered in so that passers-by got no free view; and as he says (and I saw for myself last year in Yunnan), in China and many emerging economies such horrors are still standard. The history of zoos encapsulates all human attitudes to our fellow creatures: insouciant, expedient, fearful, sentimental but of course capricious, occasionally enlightened but generally foul and, all in all, confused and astonishingly unintelligent. We can learn about ourselves by observing animals; and we can learn at least as much by observing our own attitude to animals.

The Ancient Egyptians, Hancocks says, ‘held a view of kinship, seeing themselves as members of a whole family of plants and animals, in an eternal cosmic order’. In similar vein, the people who used to be called Red Indians are said to have thanked the God of the beavers or the pronghorns or whoever, whenever they made a kill; but they also drove entire herds of bison over cliffs for quick and easy slaughter while their ancestors, ten thousand years earlier, perpetrated ‘the Pleistocene Overkill’, wiping out entire families of large mammals. A Maori lawyer told me last year in Rotarua that the old Maoris used to ask permission of every tree they cut, and hold a ceremony in its honour; but, he said, they also clear-felled many hundreds of square kilometres ‘and must have held an awful lot of ceremonies’. But let us give the Egyptians credit where it seems to be due.

Very little credit indeed is due to the Graeco-Roman tradition. Plutarch may have spoken out against animal abuse – ‘We should not use living creatures like old shoes or pots and pans and throw them away when they are worn out or broken with service’ – but for the Romans, cruelty was an art form. The circus apparently began in 186 BC, with simulated hunts of lions and leopards, and never looked back. Titus had nine thousand beasts killed in 80 AD. Trajan disposed of eleven thousand to celebrate a military triumph, while Commodus ‘personally butchered a hundred bears, six hippos, three elephants, a tiger, a giraffe, numerous ostriches, and uncounted lions and leopards’. Cicero protested: ‘What pleasure can a cultivated man find seeing a noble beast run through with a hunting spear?’ But his, like Plutarch’s after him, was a lone voice. A huge industry of hunters and traders lay behind the Roman excesses, and took its toll: lions effectively disappeared from North Africa, tigers and elephants from Persia and the rest of Western Asia.

The Old Testament launched the Judaeo-Christian tradition on a different course that was equally unfortunate. The notion that God had given humanity ‘dominion’ over the beasts has been taken at times not simply as carte blanche but as a positive inducement to treat them badly. Hancocks says that ‘when early travellers returned to England and told of the respect for life held by Jains, Buddhists, and Hindus’, they were greeted by cries of ‘Unaccountable folly!’ from one outraged commentator, while another observed that this was ‘a discouraging impediment to the empire of man over the inferior creatures’. The Catholic orthodoxy honoured the name of St Francis but took no notice of what he said.

For animals, the Enlightenment got off to an unpromising start, as Descartes proved to his own satisfaction and declared as a fact that they have no thoughts or feelings. Like the automata that were so fashionable in his day, animals merely give the illusion of sentience. For the vivisectors of the 18th century, this too was carte blanche: their subjects’ screams were merely the squeaks of machinery. Many protested, including Voltaire, but again the voice of kindness and sense was ignored.

Eighteenth-century menageries were commensurately grisly: rows of tormented beasts that, on the whole, died mercifully quickly. Such ‘disgusting receptacles’, as one contemporary described them, persisted well into the 19th century. Among the most famous was Polito’s Royal Menagerie on the site of the present Strand Palace Hotel in London (initially founded in the 17th century as Pidcock’s Exhibition of Wild Beasts). The cries of its miserable inmates, lions, hyenas and even rhinos, in cages hardly big enough for them to turn round in, aroused complaints because they disturbed the passing horses. Polito’s vast Indian elephant, Chunee, was taken for walks in the Strand until one night in 1826, irritated by a rotten tusk, he went berserk. He finally succumbed to a harpoon after 252 musket balls despatched by hastily summoned soldiery had failed to bring him to a stop.

More significantly, the 19th century brought us the institutions that we think of as ‘zoos’. London Zoo, in Regent’s Park, was among the first and for nearly two centuries it was the model for most of the rest. The Zoological Society of London which set it up was founded in 1826 by Sir Stamford Raffles, who gave his name to the world’s largest flower, Rafflesia, and recorded from close hand the eruption of Tambora in 1815 (the debris from which furnished Turner with his finest sunsets), as well as founding Singapore. The zoo he conceived was finally opened in 1828 but Raffles never saw it: he had died from a cerebral haemorrhage in 1826, aged 45.

With Raffles gone, the early ZSL members could not agree what their zoo was actually for. The landowners among them, Hancocks says, ‘wanted to emphasise animals such as eland, ducks and trout, with potential for acclimatisation and subsequent breeding’. The faunas of New Zealand and Australia were devastated by just such ambitions: the line between conservation and meddling is a narrow one. But another school of thought in the ZSL sought to establish a ‘postage stamp’ collection of beasts, a kind of national reference book: two (or one) of each kind. The latter school prevailed. Nineteenth-century zoos were constructed primarily on phylogenetic lines: curators were anxious to complete their ‘collections’ of each group (all 36 species of cat, all five rhinos – although no one ever managed that), each in its dedicated ‘house’.

The postage stamp approach is still prevalent. When I was a fellow of the ZSL one elderly Council member used constantly to mourn the passing of London’s antelope house, where one of each kind had stood side by side in pens like sheep at market. ‘Splendid quarters for an animal’, he would enthuse. They had hay and water, and were warm; what else could they want? That was as recently as the early 1990s. In North America and mainland Europe especially, the dedicated animal house became an architectural sub-discipline which Hancocks surveys with bemused relish – he is an architect, as well as the director of the Werribee Open Range Zoo near Melbourne. There were baroque palaces for elephants, gothic railway stations for lions, Hindu temples for monkeys. London Zoo, in the 1930s, employed Berthold Lubetkin to build an ape house (it was no good for apes and it’s still not clear what should be done with it), various covered walks and, most famously, a sculptural penguin pool. The pool is a sun-trap, but since the blackfooted penguins that live in it are African, no one can agree whether they enjoy their Bauhaus residence or not. Children can’t see into it unless they are lifted up, but Lubetkin’s pool is in all the text books and, like all his work, it’s listed. All old zoos are embarrassed by the lumber of their past, however prestigious the lumber may be.

The despotic Lord ‘Solly’ Zuckerman, as ZSL Secretary, dominated the postwar decades and disdained the notion that either London Zoo or Whipsnade should concern itself with conservation. As Hancocks recalls, he used his influence with government to build the Institute of Zoology on the site at Regent’s Park for ‘pure’ research, and the Wellcome Laboratory for medical work. Zuckerman ruled before my time, but I’m told that he and his chum the Duke of Edinburgh, then President, would announce what was to be done and the strawberry-nosed old buffers who formed the Council would apply the rubber stamp. When Zuckerman finally retired in the 1980s he left confusion in his wake, as despots tend to. Thatcher’s Government was less generous than its predecessors and no one had Zuckerman’s power to demand hand-outs. By the late 1980s London Zoo, which had once had three million paying visitors a year was all but bankrupt. Desperate, the Council called in a marketing company from America, who proposed to relaunch it as ‘An Animal Experience in London’. The residents of North London, who should have been the ZSL’s constituency, instead jogged around Regent’s Park with anti-zoo slogans on their T-shirts (‘Keep the zoo out of the park’). The press was almost unremittingly hostile. ‘Good riddance’ was the general response. In the wake of her role as Joy Adamson in Born Free, Virginia McKenna and her husband, Bill Travers, founded Zoo Check, in essence anti-zoo. As London Zoo languished, Zoo Check flourished.

In 1990, the post-Zuckerman Council declared that London Zoo must close. It was saved by the ‘Reform Group’: a few like-thinking fellows (I’m cautiously proud to say I was one of them) who pointed out, more or less for the first time, that animal conservation really does matter, and zoos must play a part in it. After a long and often vicious tussle, the Reform Group more or less succeeded. Some of us were elected to Council and the zoo stayed open. Hancocks is wrong to suggest, however, that a keen and competent executive was then hampered by the meddling reformers. In fact, reform was halted by a new wave of officers who were as conservative as their predecessors, and backed by an executive that did what those officers told them. The new reforming councillors were sidelined and I resigned. Most of the others stayed and some are still there.

London Zoo is still there, too, and it does have some good points: the Mappin Terraces, the sprayed-concrete mini-mountain that dates from the First World War and that Hancocks so despises, has now been ‘planted out’ and ‘landscaped’ and does fine service for bears and monkeys; and there are some excellent conservation programmes, not least for small beasts such as partula snails, run by Paul Pearce-Kelly. But the radical rethink has not happened. There are still too many domestic camels, only one step up in conservation terms from Friesian cows, and architecture still dominates. London, the first zoo to be rooted in science, should be the world’s front-runner: not in size, of course, for it is still an urban zoo with 19th-century origins, but intellectually and morally. Its opportunity to lead has been lost; though not for the reasons Hancocks suggests.

The 19th century also gave rise to a quite different tradition, which began with Carl Hagenbeck, who opened his Tierpark in a Hamburg suburb in 1874 and a bigger version in 1907. This was the first landscaped zoo, the animals confined not by bars but with moats and ha-has, like cattle and deer in English country houses. His 1907 version had two great panoramas, Africa and the Arctic. For most moderns, the landscaped zoo has become de rigueur.

But it is very easy to get it wrong; and again, I don’t quite agree with Hancocks’s analysis. I fear that he isn’t enough of a biologist: he is not sufficiently interested in what animals might actually want; and he doesn’t seem properly to understand the demands of conservation, or what zoos could really contribute. Most important, he has fallen into the trap of ecological trendiness, which currently misconstrues the nature of ‘ecosystems’ and exaggerates the role of small creatures, like beetles and mice, at the expense of big ones – derisorily nick-named ‘charismatic megavertebrates’ or ‘cuddlies’.

He and I agree that many ‘landscapes’ in modern zoos are a sham: bad for the animals, useless for conservation. Gorillas, for example, may be shown these days among vague miscellanies of plants. These not only have more to do with Harrods’ Floral Hall than with Central or West Africa but are kept apart from the beasts by artful sheets of plate glass. For all the stage scenery, the actual lebensraum may be not much greater than it was at Polito’s. Some zoos spend huge sums on fibreglass trees with steel foliage; wonderful to the eye, perhaps, but lacking the unpredictable movement, the textures, smells and microfauna and flora that wild animals experience in real trees. Traditional zoos at least supply balls and tyres, which offer some amusement. No such frivolity is allowed in the modern chocolate box displays in case it spoils the illusion.

We disagree, however, on the solutions. Hancocks admires in particular the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which imports chunks of real desert, complete with resident beasts, such as ants. He would bring in vegetation from the animals’ actual habitats, and replace it when they tear it up. Although he admires Jersey Zoo as all good zoo people should (the vision of its founder, Gerald Durrell, has been conscientiously taken forward), he disdains the gorilla enclosure, with its local grass and trees, and its toys and slide. He has even less regard for the late John Aspinall’s approach at Howletts in Kent, where the gorillas romp through their entire lives in a series of gymnasia. But I reckon the gorillas divide the hundreds of species of tree in their native tropical forests fairly simply into those that can be eaten, climbed or brandished, and those that cannot. If Europe offers oak and ash, then fine: oak and ash may not speak directly of Rwanda, but they will do. Howletts has enabled Jennifer Scott to carry out one of the finest ever studies of gorilla social behaviour. Their intelligence is proving to be ‘Machiavellian’, as the primatologists say. In a nutshell, gorillas are far more devious and less nice than has recently been reported, bearing grudges and exacting revenge on the offspring of their social superiors.

Similarly, in the name of ‘education’ modern zoos seek to present entire ‘ecosystems’ that are set, supposedly, in the animals’ native countries – the ‘zoogeographical’ approach. But this, too, is largely spurious. Some animals are ineluctably wedded to particular vegetation, as koalas are to eucalyptus, and some pairs of creatures have co-evolved to the point where neither can do without the other, like the deep flowered orchids and the long-proboscised moths that Darwin described. But many creatures, like cockroaches and barn owls and big, intelligent mammals, can and do live almost anywhere. Tigers live in dense forest, up mountains, in swamps. Elephants generally prefer forest but often graze in open country. Ecologists have found, too, that whereas a particular mussel may cohabit with a particular clam in one place, it may well be found in completely different company elsewhere. Ecosystems, in short, are not scripted. Much of the time they are loose assemblages of creatures that happen to find themselves in each others’ company, and rub along as best they can. Many animals live in particular places not because they are especially ‘adapted’ but almost entirely through contingency – and often enough because human beings have kicked them out of somewhere else. Lions do not live wild in Paris only because it is full of Parisians, and Britain’s golden eagles are confined to the Highlands (with a few in the Lakes) not because they are fans of Landseer but because in the lowlands, which on the whole offer easier pickings, they were shot. So the ‘educational’ paradigm of the ecosystem that now informs the design of so many zoos all over the world is largely a lie.

Hancocks is wrong, too – although again in some circles his view is trendy – to dismiss the role of captive breeding in modern conservation, and the contribution that zoos can make to it. Obviously, the ideal is to conserve wild animals in the wild. But this isn’t always an option. Genetic theory suggests that unless there are around five hundred individuals in any one population, sooner or later, accidents and inbreeding will drive the group to extinction. But a single tiger needs up to a hundred square kilometres in which to hunt. How many reserves are there of fifty thousand square kilometres? There are many wild populations of tigers, but how many are viable, in all but the shortest term? Species like this need captive back-up, just to maintain the numbers; not all the time, but at least in those intervals (such as war) when the wild is too inhospitable. Few zoos are ideal for captive breeding but, faute de mieux, they must play their part. Of course, captive breeding cannot provide back-up for all the species endangered at any one time (the figure must run into millions), but then it isn’t suitable for all of them. The big whales, for instance, are not good candidates. But it is ridiculous to write off a strategy that is necessary for some because it cannot be applied to all.

Captive breeding is a fine and necessary short-term expedient for many small animals, where entire populations may be maintained in a sandwich box (as Pearce-Kelly raises partulas in London); and for some big animals, such as tigers and black rhinos. The notion that tigers are not important ‘ecologically’ because they are at the top of the food chain, while mice are because they are nearer the bottom, is another piece of nonsense. In all ecosystems, influence flows both ways. The unfashionable notion of phylogeny also has a part to play in establishing conservation strategy. If we save one species of elephant from extinction, then we have conserved half of the great zoological order of the Proboscidea. But to conserve one beetle is to rescue just one in half a million of the order Coleoptera. Big animals matter for reasons of the crudest biology, as well as for their beauty and intelligence.

Hancocks is right to emphasise that zoos must be good to look at, to inspire respect and love for animals. But they also need to be workmanlike. I like wide open spaces as much as anyone, but sometimes the gymnasium works, and sometimes the sandwich box.

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