Oliver Burkeman: It's a jungle out there (2023)

It is 10.30 on a bright morning at Dudley Zoo - the peaceful hour, just after opening time, before the crowds start to arrive - and a small child in a purple jacket is being misinformed. "Look, Charlotte! Look at the gorilla!" "Gorilla," the purple-clad child responds, experimenting with the word.

Benjamin, one of Dudley's three resident Bornean orang-utans, watches the exchange passively from his concrete enclosure, blinking occasionally and wearing an expression it would be easy to interpret as withering forbearance. There are only about 50,000 Bornean orang-utans left on the planet, and being mistaken for gorillas is among the least of their worries. A much bigger concern is the deforestation of Borneo, where most of them live. The fact that three of them reside in the West Midlands, in an angular compound designed by the modernist architect Berthold Lubetkin, is either shockingly cruel or crucial for the survival of the species, depending on how you feel about zoos.

Dudley, which turns 70 this year, has long struggled with a reputation as a dispiriting institution. "It was crap. Crap. It was on the point of closure," Peter Suddock, the zoo's chief executive, says of the time he took over in the early 1990s. Perennially cash-strapped, it has been repeatedly targeted by animal rights campaigners who said they had observed "stereotypic behaviour", the obsessive pacing, rocking and hair-pulling of mammals driven desperate by captivity. In 2000, the magazine Holiday Which? voted it Britain's worst zoo. Visiting Dudley today is a more complicated experience. There are fewer species with more space. The elephants have been shipped to a wildlife park in France, and some of Lubetkin's more hopelessly impractical buildings have been boarded up. Then again, the Sumatran tigers still pace on concrete; the Asiatic bears are still confined to a relatively small paddock; old-fashioned cages abound.

Like almost every zoo in Britain, Dudley now presents itself as existing primarily to serve the cause of conservation. "The vast majority of the population in this part of the world can't afford to go to Asia, Africa, South America for holidays - they might do one, if they're bloody lucky, but not all three," Suddock says. "So we've got to show them what wonderful species the world holds, and reinforce the message that we mustn't exploit them." New placards seek to provide zoological education in single, bite-sized facts, which Suddock calls "pub signs". "For example: why have macaques got red bums? It's part of their mating process. So now, some guy who's been to the zoo can lean on the bar down the pub and say 'Hey, do you realise...?' And suddenly he's the world's leading expert on macaques' arses."

More people will visit zoos this bank holiday weekend than at any other time this year, and while precise numbers are hard to come by, zoos claim they are rising. At London Zoo, visitors will flock to the newly opened Gorilla Kingdom, one of the new wave of "immersive exhibits" that seek to make visitors feel as if they are on safari, rather than staring through the bars of an animal prison. There, as at Dudley, they will stare into the dark, expressive eyes of captive great apes - as I did for a long minute with Benjamin, the Bornean orang-utan - and try, in vain, to figure out what's going on inside.

Animal rights campaigners like to refer to zoos as "Victorian" in a pejorative sense, evoking an era when it went without question that "animals were there for us to use," in the words of Craig Redmond, campaigns officer of the Captive Animals Protection Society, which is helping coordinate a day of protests outside zoos this bank holiday Monday. London Zoo - opened to the public in 1847, and the first zoological gardens to be given the abbreviated name - is Victorian in the literal sense, too.

Unashamed curiosity was the sole explanation for the zoo's runaway popularity with the public. "Everybody is still running towards the Regent's Park, for the purpose of passing half an hour with the Hippopotamus," Punch magazine reported in 1850. "The animal itself repays public curiosity with a yawn of indifference, or throws cold water on the ardour of his visitors, by suddenly plunging into his bath, and splashing every one within five yards of him. Much disappointment has been expressed at the Hippopotamus, in consequence of its not being exactly up to the general idea of a sea-horse, and many hundreds go away grumbling every day, because the brute is not so equestrian in appearance as could be desired." It would be more than a century before concerns about animal welfare made any significant impact on visitors' minds: it would, after all, be more than half a century before zoos stopped exhibiting humans, transported from Africa.

With one or two honourable exceptions, things changed very slowly. David Hancocks, who has served as director of several zoos in America and Australia, recalls his first encounter with a gorilla at Regent's Park, in the 1960s. "It wasn't the huge form that astonished me, so much as the intelligence in his eyes. That, and the bitterly small size of his barren cage," he writes in his book A Different Nature. "This extraordinary animal, with his regal air, survived in a space no bigger than a garden shed. He was called Guy, and he sat on a concrete floor, soiled with his own excrement, looking out through bars and a glass window at a million people who shuffled past each year to gawk at him in his silent and solitary confinement. I walked away from London Zoo that day, as I have many others since, feeling confused and depressed." And that was London, Britain's flagship zoo: further from the spotlight, conditions were worse still, and reports of severe maltreatment rife.

That picture is unrecognisable at London today. After a long decline that continued well beyond the passage of the Zoo Licensing Act, in 1981, zoos are finally in the ascendant again, and London's new Gorilla Kingdom is the highest-profile example of the trend. The £5.3m exhibit seeks to recreate a central African forest clearing, accessorised with an indoor gym - plunging visitors into the world of its three occupants, the 23-year-old silverback male, Bobby, and two females, 32-year-old Zaire and 14-year-old Effie. Plasma screens, showing footage from Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, make explicit the links to conservation projects in the field: the Zoological Society of London, which runs the zoos at Regent's Park and Whipsnade, funnels £10m annually, mainly from ticket sales, into 40 conservation projects around the world. (The two zoos are being rebranded as "ZSL London Zoo" and "ZSL Whipsnade" to drive the message home.) It was still possible to overhear one or two visitors this week expressing negative feelings: "It's so sad, so miserable," one woman said, as her toddler raced over to commune with Effie through the gym's glass wall.

But the public and media have, by and large, been held rapt by the exhibit, especially by the romantic storyline energetically promoted by the zoo: does Effie like Bobby? Will Bobby take a shine to Effie? What will Zaire make of it all? To the untrained eye, the gorillas certainly seem content. Watching them is a mesmerising experience, and one untainted by the familiar twinge of zoo-induced depression.

Daniel Simmonds, the gorillas' personable keeper, has a ready answer when he's asked whether the apes wouldn't be better off in the wild. "If you could communicate with Bobby and say, look, Bobby, you can go back to central Africa, you can risk dying from ebola, being virtually eaten alive by insects every day, having your system full of parasites, getting sick regularly, having to wander for miles and miles a day, finding not much food because the chimpanzees have taken it first, and constantly having to defend your group with your life ... or you can sit here in what we sometimes call Hotel London Zoo, full board, heating in the winter, guaranteed food, surrounded by a harem of women ... " The question, he implies, does not really need answering.

There is a slightly awkward fit between this view - that it's possible to give animals a better life in captivity than they'd have in the wild - and the other main justification used by zoos, which is that captive animals are making a sacrifice on behalf of their wild cousins. Simmonds makes both arguments at once. "We've got three animals here, and there are about 100,000 western lowland gorillas left in the wild," he says. "So what's more important? 100,000, or three? So ultimately they have kind of made a sacrifice for the future existence of an entire species, and that's quite a noble thing ... Bobby, Zaire and Effie really are ambassadors for what we do in the wild. They're doing so much to ensure the future existence of an entire species."

"There's this hideous phrase - I expect you've heard it already - about these animals being ambassadors for their species," says Craig Redmond, at the Captive Animals Protection Society (Caps). For campaigners from an animal rights background, arguments about the greater good cut little ice. "These animals haven't said they want to be ambassadors," Redmond says. "Who has decided?"

The anti-zoo activists are particularly disdainful of what they call "the ark paradigm" - the notion that zoos, acting like Noah in the flood, are sheltering and breeding stocks of animals so that they can be returned to the wild. In fact, there are few such success stories. The Arabian oryx, a variety of antelope, is often cited as one: after being hunted to extinction in the 1970s, a captive-bred group was released into the wild in 1982. According to Caps, by 1999 only a quarter of the animals still survived. Animals bred in captivity can be utterly ill-suited to life in the wild. Besides, the group estimates, 89% of species in British zoos are not on the endangered list.

According to David Hancocks, "most zoos have had no contact with any kind of reintroduction program". Further problems with captive breeding have been highlighted by the debate in Germany over the impossibly cute polar-bear cub Knut, born in Berlin Zoo: some experts argued it would be more humane to kill the cub, who was rejected by his mother at birth, than to raise him with a dependence on a human keeper who could never truly act as a substitute.

The "ambassador" argument is subtler, and somewhat more persuasive. "We've had more than 120,000 schoolchildren visiting London Zoo and Whipsnade," thanks to a program operated by the mayor, says Malcolm Fitzpatrick, ZSL's curator of mammals. "If we can make a difference to one in 10 of those, they'll hopefully get inspired by conservation, they may go home and Google 'gorillas', they may begin to think, OK, what can I do to make a difference?" More specifically, there's the matter of ticket sales. "Without the animals, there's no zoo," says Daniel Simmonds. "Without the zoo, there's no funding. And without the funding, there's no conservation projects. If we closed this exhibit and our other flagship projects, people wouldn't come to the zoo as much, and it would have an effect on our conservation projects. Because, sadly, conservation is very much about money."

Even so, flagship exhibits have been closed at London as a result of welfare concerns: not long ago, the elephants were moved to a more spacious enclosure at Whipsnade; it is some years now since there have been polar bears at Regent's Park. And perhaps the public hunger for seeing big mammals in captivity is not unchangeable. Aside from Gorilla Kingdom, the most popular exhibit at London Zoo the day I visited seemed to be the altogether less ethically problematic butterfly house.

Celebrity beasts

This month the world's first rhino calf born through artificial insemination made her debut at Budapest Zoo. Born weighing 58kg (127.9lb) in January, Layla - named after a poll on the zoo's website - was rejected by her mother.

Knut , a four-month-old polar bear cub, is the sensation of Berlin's Zoologischer Garten, with about 30,000 visitors a day. Knut appeared with Leonardo DiCaprio on the cover of Vanity Fair and a poll suggested 58% of Germans follow his progress.

Addwaitya the giant tortoise, once the pet of Robert Clive, was reckoned to have been 255 when he died at Calcutta zoo in March 2006, making him the oldest animal in the world.

Obaysch arrived at London Zoo in 1850, the first hippopotamus to be seen in Europe since the Roman Empire. Obaysch enjoyed celebrity status, with Punch publishing a memorial poem in 1878.

Guy was a lowland gorilla who lived at London Zoo from 1947-1978. He arrived at the zoo clutching a hot water bottle on Guy Fawkes day, hence the name.

Chi Chi the giant panda arrived in London in 1958 and died in 1972. She inspired the World Wildlife Fund's symbol and her fruitless liaison with Moscow Zoo's An-An made regular front-page news.

War in Afghanistan had a devastating effect on Kabul Zoo. By 2001 only nine mammals remained. They included Marjan, a lion blinded by a grenade.
Linda MacDonald

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