The Zoo: the wild and wonderful tale of the founding of London Zoo by Isobel Charman. Penguin. October 2016
A review by Jane McChrystal


The death of Harambe, a Western Lowland gorilla, in May at Cincinnati Zoo raised two troubling questions for me: who was responsible for his fate and what is the purpose of zoos in the 21st Century?

The answer to the first question seems clear.  No matter who we blame for his shooting- the animal response team, the parents of the child who fell into his enclosure, the designers and managers of the zoo – Harambe was killed as the result of being bred, born and held in captivity for seventeen years.

When a book appeared in October promising the “wild and wonderful tale of the founding of London Zoo” I picked it up in search of insight into what drove the founding fathers of the London Zoological Society and whether it has any relevance to the function of zoos today.

The Zoo is based on Charman’s extensive research into the Society’s archives and tells its story between 1824-1851 from the point of view of seven historical figures.   They were: the first collector, Sir Stamford Raffles; the architect, Decimus Burton; the vet, Charles Spooner; the animal preserver, John Gould; the keeper, Devereux Fuller; a corresponding member, Charles Darwin; the president, the Earl of Derby.

Each man’s story is told in the third person within a chapter of varying length.  This narrative technique puts great pressure on the writer to establish and develop a unique voice for each subject which distinguishes him clearly from the others and I don’t think Charman has pulled off this authorial feat.

The attempt to build a narrative based on seven historical figures is further hampered by the disparity in the level of fame each of them has attained.  Charman admits she constructed a persona for the keeper, Devereux Fuller, on the foundation of a few facts gleaned from the Society’s records.  At the other extreme she had the difficult task of painting a convincing portrait of the young Charles Darwin, when so many biographies exist including Janet Browne’s magisterial account of his early life, Voyaging.

Sometimes the archive material sits heavily on the narrative.  For instance, as Charles Spooner, the vet, reflects on his preference for studying pathology in live animal and his abhorrence of vivisection, we are told:

He detested experiments and researches on live animals, was sorry that some thought it the surest way to new knowledge.  This had seemed to be changing of late, thanks to the work of other like-minded professionals, and the society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, which had been founded a few years ago.

The reliance on archive material also results in a slightly dry, distant depiction of the animals, which should have put heart into the history.  Instead, they tend to get pushed aside by the internal wrangling of the LZS and professional disputes, leaving less room for the wild and wondrous.

However, Charman does succeed in identifying the forces that compelled the founding fathers to establish the Zoo and keep it going even when it seemed destined to fail.

They had a quest: to collect new and monstrous forms of life from all corners of the Empire and display them at its centre.  Some were motivated by the desire for scientific knowledge, while others wanted to put on a spectacular show for the visiting public.

These days, zoos are keen to promote their earnest intentions and play down their role as entertainment parks.  So, they are centres of animal conservation and scientific research.  They save the gene pools of threatened species through their breeding programmes.  The purpose of admitting visitors is largely educational, designed to produce future generations of conservationists and conservation supporters, who would never emerge without an experience of viewing animals in enclosures.

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums conducted a large scale, in-house survey of visitors as they arrived at the zoo and on departure to demonstrate the effectiveness of their educational mission.  The results were published in 2014.

Roughly 3.5 percent of the visitors entered believing that they can support biodiversity by supporting zoos.

This figure increased by 1 percent when they left.

The evidence is weak and was gathered in a rather poorly designed piece of research.

After all, the journey between believing that one can support biodiversity by supporting zoos and becoming an active advocate of animal conservation is a long one with no map to show how it’s made.

As for the zoo breeding programmes, they don’t result in animals’ release into their natural habitat and can end in the sacrifice of those which aren’t deemed fit to enrich the gene pool.

It’s true to say that the rates of attrition in wild animal populations are high but, while more animals survive in captivity, their lives are shorter and the quality of life they experience is severely compromised.   Held in a restricted, alien environment, under constant scrutiny by the public, many animals suffer chronic stress and show stereotyped behaviour such as pacing, feather plucking and excessive grooming and sleeping.

In a world without zoos, some might argue, scientists and vets would be unable to carry out research vital to animals’ health and welfare.   If this were carried out in the animals’ natural environment it could have the added benefit of increasing efforts to preserve it.

If children didn’t visit zoos would they grow up indifferent to the future of wild life? I don’t believe so.  Techniques of filming animals close up in the wild now produce astonishing documentaries of wildlife at every stage of the life-cycle which exceed any experience of looking at an unfortunate creature pacing up and down in its enclosure.

If we dare to imagine a world without zoos, or even safari holidays, maybe animals could eventually live in their natural environment under our protection.  People who seek the sensation of the wild might be well-intentioned, but their presence can endanger the objects of their fascination.

Why do people continue to visit zoos? Here are some suggestions: to entertain the kids; marvel at the extraordinary animals; coo over the cute, cuddly furry ones: shiver at the slithery, carunculated ones and thrill to the proximity of the dangerous ones.

The most important thing I took away from Charman’s book was a reminder that, despite the enormous advances we’ve made in identifying the real physical and psychological needs of animals, our desire to gawp at them is not so different to that of 19th Century zoo visitors, who were not endowed with our understanding.

Jane McChrystal © 2016.