20 APRIL 1991, Page 8


The beauty, mystery and rightness of wild animals in captivity


Dr Jo Gipps, who is the curator of mammals at London Zoo, wrote to the Independent on Monday to defend his institution. He spoke of some of his charges — pandas, Arabian oryxes and golden lion tamarins — as 'high-profile flagship species', which is apparently a good thing to be, and he sought to refute the accusation of a leader in the Indepen- dent which had attacked the zoo for trying `to perpetuate the old view of man as lord and master of creation'.

Actually, the old view was that God was the lord and master of creation and that man was merely His chief steward or, as Dr Giffps might prefer, His high-profile flagship species. But even if you leave God out of it, it is surely very hard to avoid the view that man is the boss on earth. One hears it said that whales and dolphins have very deep thoughts, but their cultural artefacts, economic success, scientific in- ventions, religious ceremonies and all the other things which we associate with civi- lisation seem modest beside our own. Man visibly has more wit and ingenuity than any other living thing that creepeth upon the earth (or swimmeth in the deep).

Possibly it is a certain gentlemanly reluctance in man to proclaim his own superiority which has led so many to welcome the suggestion that London Zoo should close; possibly it is his unique capacity for silliness. Whatever the reason, the arguments advanced for the Zoo's closure have been so feeble or lazy or mad that one wonders whether we are the high-profile flagship species after all.

It is asserted, by the normally wise Christopher Booker among others, that animals should only be looked at in their `natural setting'. Why? No one argues that plants should exist only in their natural setting and that gardens are therefore wicked. The difference is supposed to be that animals, unlike plants, can suffer pain. This is true, but even the anti-zoo fanatics do not argue that most animals find their durance vile. It is only tigers, birds of prey, orang-outangs according to my wife, who are a little unhappy in their pens. Why should hundreds of species be thrown onto the streets, as it were, because a very few of them are restive?

And how do we know that the natural state of birds and beasts is what they enjoy above everything? It is generally, like the natural state of man as defined by Hobbes, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Most breeds of horses and dogs and cats and cows are domesticated breeds, far more radically altered by man's desires than wild animals in zoos, but they do not seem more emotionally inadequate than eagles and snakes and polar bears. Wild animals in zoos generally enjoy better food, better health and better sex (there is a vast sex industry in zoos) than they would if man had left them alone. They have to put up with a lot of people pointing at them but, as any owner of a stately home would tell you, that is a small price to pay for a meal ticket for life.

Besides, if you really care about the happiness of animals and birds, you have to study what makes them happy, and one of the best ways of doing this is in a zoo. I spoke to Dr Marion Dawkins, of the Department of Zoology at Oxford. Her thing is jungle hens. She has developed the hennish equivalent of Bentham's felicific calculus. She believes that she can find out what hens want by asking them, that is, by setting them tests to quantify their desires. By making them walk through narrow gaps, for example — something they do not care for — she has ascertained that they very much like scratching for things and, contrary to the claims of battery chicken farmers, that they very much like having proper nests in which to lay their eggs. Dr Dawkins has learnt all this be- cause Whipsnade let her study their hens. When she tried to study them in their natural setting in Thailand all she ever saw was 'a few tail-feathers disappearing into the bushes'. She tells me that similar experiments to increase animal happiness are constantly made at London Zoo itself. The chimpanzees, for instance, are given all sorts of interesting tools with which to eat their meals, and they much prefer them to having the food just dumped in bowls in front of them.

All of which leads me to suppose that opposition to the Zoo cannot have all that much to do with concern for animals, and probably has more to do with a dislike of man. Fired by the debate, I have been to the Zoo twice in the past week, and the most striking thing about it is that it is a work of the human imagination. This is apparent from the architecture. Decimus Burton's giraffe house is a dignified vertic- al elongation of the stables of a 19th- century country house. As you look from

inside through the arch to the graceful neck and head of the giraffe almost floating above you, you have a charming intimation of order and delicacy. Berthold Lubetkin's virtuoso penguin pool enables the visitor to discern the almost abstract beauties of a collection of black and white birds. (It is not true, by the way, that the penguins won't co-operate with Lubetkin's Modern Movement design: this is only the case with his small diving tank attached.) J.J. Joass's Mappin Terraces, now no longer the haunt of bears, alas, dramatise the natural habi- tat and make a sort of amphitheatre in reverse with the public on the stage. Even Sir Hugh Casson's rather unsympathetic elephant house is a sort of performance.

All the buildings, in short, play with animals. The puritans think that this is a very wicked thing to do. To me it seems beautiful and necessary and delightful, as is playing with children. The juxtaposition of the buildings, the extreme contrasts be- tween different species of animals, the very fact that the whole Zoo is in quite a confined space make it magical and funny.

This is why children love it. On my visits, the place was full of children, and none looked bored and listless, as they so often do when inspecting inanimate objects. Contrary to so much written in the last week, their experience of the Zoo is quite unlike that of watching nature films on television because it is an engagement between each child and each animal. My very earliest memory is of a donkey; one of my earliest is of a mandrill in Copenhagen Zoo. These unsensational encounters sink far deeper than the most dramatic display of nature red in tooth and claw that David Attenborough can lay on.

I return to the comparison with gardens. Zoos were originally called zoological gar- dens. Their full name expressed the way their founders conceived them. They could give instruction and delight; they could display the beauties of nature and yet be accommodated in a city and be manage- able by men; they could recall in modest form that first garden, as much zoological as botanical, when all was harmonious because God's high-profile flagship species had not yet been disobedient. Zoos express a right human relation with animals, as gardens do with plants. Why do the de- scendants of Adam and Eve romanticise the howling wilderness and want to grub up the little scrap of Eden in NW1?