Is it closing time for the big game attractions? Last month the senior elephant keeper at London Zoo, Jim Robson, was killed by one of the elephants he loved. Robson had worked at the zoo for 26 years, the past 16 in the elephant house. He was crushed to death by the elephant in front of about 100 people. It was not funny. This was a tragic death, and it could be the beginning of the end of London Zoo – perhaps of all Britain’s urban zoos. Last week the zoo announced that its three elephants were to be moved to Whipsnade wild animal park, a country park outside London. The zoo’s director-general, Michael Dixon, in the statement. “We will be sorry to see the elephants go; there have been elephants in London Zoo since 1831.” One newspaper article said that this was a crisis for the zoo, and for all zoos, because if London Zoo admits that it cannot keep “charismatic megaspecies”, it is accepting that it has no future. Many smaller zoo animals are wonderful, but they will not attract large numbers of visitors to the zoo. Lions, tigers, gorillas, giraffes, pandas, rhinos – and most of all elephants – are what makes a visit to the zoo memorable. As well as the elephants, rhinos are going too and most of the bears have already gone. Those bears – a female and its recently born cub – symbolise the dilemma that zoos are facing at the moment. The female used to be in Prague zoo where it learned that if it danced for visitors they would feed it. Now it sits rocking from side to side as if it is dancing: it has a beautiful cub who stays close to its mother, but still it rocks. The sad sight of this rocking bear seems to support the case against zoos. But then you read the sign on the enclosure: “Sloth bears are illegally killed for their gall bladders, which are used in traditional oriental medicine. They also suffer from loss of habitat and are used as dancing bears. Our bears are part of the European conservation breeding programme. The first cub was born in January 1998.” So, do we feel sorry for the dancing bear from Prague or should we feel happy that her cubs will never have to perform as their mother did? Back at the elephant house a middle-aged woman called Mary was in no doubt. “I’m in favour of zoos. This is the only way the next generation can see animals without travelling abroad. Their work is very valuable.” Zoos are not perfect habitats, but they have inspired children who have gone on to become eco-activists, enthusiasts, donors. Zoos have also helped conservation. Alan, an elderly man who has visited the zoo every day for the past three years, was equally positive. “The alternative is to return them to the wild where they’ll all be killed. There has been a zoo here since 1828, and the death of the elephant keeper is the first fatality. The zoo is now under attack. The seals have gone; the bears have gone; the rhinos and now the elephants are going; the gorilla will be next. Once you take away the big animals, people will stop visiting the zoo. The zoo can survive at the moment but it won’t in the future.” The zoologist Colin Tudge believes that large animals will soon leave the zoo. “It may no longer be right to keep elephants and rhinos in urban zoos,” he says, “though it may be perfectly reasonable to keep all sorts of birds or smaller creatures.” Mary Rosevear, director of the Federation of Zoos, believes that urban zoos can survive the loss of their large animals. “A few years ago Edinburgh Zoo decided they couldn’t keep elephants any more, but the number of visitors did not fall. Certain species are very valuable in terms of visitor numbers, but I’d hope that people would also be interested in less well-known creatures. Of course you have to inspire them first. More and more schools are using zoos to teach children.” The actress Virginia McKenna, founder of the Born Free foundation, does not agree with Rosevear’s defence of urban zoos. “She’s looking at it from the human point of view. I’m trying to speak up for the animals’ needs. This type of zoo isn’t about wildlife – the animals are living museum pieces. An urban zoo is no place for large animals. This is a fabulous opportunity for London Zoo to transform the elephant and rhino pavilion into an educational centre where people can learn about conservation.” But will large numbers of visitors come to a conservation centre if the star attractions are not there? “They’ve just got to make the smaller animals more appealing,” says McKenna. “It’s no good saying, ‘We’ve got to have elephants to save beetles.’ Beetles, ants, bees are absolutely fascinating once we understand their lives and customs. We don’t need to keep elephants to find ants more appealing.”
1. How long did Jim Robson work for the zoo?