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History Of Zoos And Animal Parks

Camels at Longleat

My daughter loves animal parks, and as a kind of bribe to help her put up with visits to historic properties, we usually offer a trip to an animal park of some description. It's not usually necessary to look very far to find one. I do recall a time, looking at a gamboling otter, or some other cute creature, thinking "yes, yes very nice". But it was walking around a hedgehog hospital in Devon that the blindingly obvious finally began to dawn on me; zoos are fascinating historically.


Up until the early eighteenth century nature had generally been seen in a negative light, something to be afraid of and shut out. Tudor garden design, such as it was, was all formal hedges and clear lines. This formality in garden design continued into the eighteenth century. But then early intimations of change came about when Queen Caroline, wife of George II, created a naturalistic Hyde Park in 1728, and Charles Hamilton created the park landscape of Painshill Park from 1738. Slowly nature became something that people idealised. Then in the nineteenth century the division between man and the rest of nature was finally demolished by a number of scientists, most famously Charles Darwin. Darwin demonstrated that all of life had a shared ancestry. After reading The Origin of Species in 1859, its year of publication, Thomas Hardy decided it was no longer possible to judge certain forms of life as having less worth than others. Hardy became an early opponent of cruelty to animals. In a similar way he did not dismiss certain sections of human society as having less worth than others, a widespread attitude in stratified Victorian society. The whole of Tess of the D'Urbervilles - the story of a milkmaid whose humble family was once one of the country's greatest dynasties - is concerned with this theme.


Zoos, fittingly, became very popular in nineteenth century England. Previously wild and exotic animals had been kept for a long time as symbols of wealth. King Shalgia of Mesopotamia founded a zoo in 2000BC. Henry VIII kept lions and other wild animals at the Tower of London, and James I had a similar collection in St James's Park. But the zoo as a popular institution came into being in Victorian times. The Zoological Gardens in London's Regent's Park opened as a members club in 1828 in grounds laid out by Decimus Burton. The original collection was of four hundred and thirty animals and birds donated from the Royal Menagerie. London Zoo, therefore, serves as a link between the old type of zoo as a royal collection, and a new vision of a public institution. People flocked to London Zoo when it opened to the public in 1847. Thirty thousand visited in the first seven months. As A.N. Wilson noted in The Victorians the experience of looking a chimpanzee in the eye, and seeing their human-like expressions and gestures must have been something of a revelation. Amateur botany became the rage. In 1844 a book on natural history became a best seller - a book called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published anonymously, and later revealed as the work of publisher Robert Chambers. In this book Chambers introduced to a wide audience the idea that all life on Earth had a common origin, and that life had come about as a result of evolutionary laws. Scientists, Darwin included, were snooty about Vestiges, but this book prepared the ground for publication and widespread acceptance of The Origin of Species in 1859. The same could be said of London Zoo. Zoos then are part of the most significant historical trend of the last two hundred years, a trend which completely changed the way we look at life. Their popularity has continued to soar, and as I say we can usually find one for my daughter no matter where we are. Zoos themselves have evolved, and now often try to present the animals in a more "natural" setting. In 1966 Longleat in Wiltshire became the first safari park to open outside Africa, with animals wandering in large enclosures, rather than being confined to cages. Now lists thirty safari and wildlife parks in Britain. This interest in nature is of course world wide, and Steve Irwin became a major television star in his films about Australia Zoo.


A Fox at the British Wildlife Centre, Surrey

So zoos were part of a movement which showed that nature was all of a piece, but walking around zoo parks today, I can't help feeling that the new ecology in its laudable conservatory zeal is forgetting this basic fact. During a visit to the British Wildlife Centre near Lingfield Surrey, I listened to a talk about wildcats. Wildcats are under threat from the domestic cat. Consideration was being given to measures that might be taken to save them. Nothing had been done as yet since researchers were unable to accurately say what a wildcat is, so similar is it in genetic make up to the domestic cat. According to the lecturer this could mean wildcats were already extinct. But, I wondered, couldn't this also mean the wildcat was doing very nicely thank you eating Whiskers? It seemed that the wildcat had already saved itself, by becoming a domestic cat.


Zoos rightly make much of their conservation mission, but putting an animal in a zoo, or an animal park on the wide open plains of Wiltshire, will inevitably change what it sets out to preserve. As Steve Jones says in Almost Like a Whale: "... a zoo can sample just a tiny part of the diversity present in the wild... keepers must breed from what little they possess - which itself means evolution. They must also, perforce, choose as parents those animals best able to cope with their new environment. As a result their charges begin to change, as cows and dogs are changed" (P37). Britain is a very different place to Africa, and animals will adapt to life here. And it won't take long. Often in a stable environment, the illusion of species stability will occur. But changes in environment bring rapid developments in animal structure. The work of Peter and Rosemary Grant among finches in the Galapagos showed staggering potential for rapid adaptation among finches due to environmental change. J.B.S Haldane has suggested that some fossil records show a change in animal structure of 1% per million years. He called this amount of change 1 Darwin. The Grants found that a single drought in 1977 brought about a change of 25,000 Darwins in the Galapagos finches they were studying (see The Beak of the Finch by Jonathon Weiner). Of course normal rainfall the following year tended to cancel these changes out. But the potential for adaptation to a sustained change was massive. Animals in wildlife parks will soon start to exploit this potential, and it won't be long before evolution does it's work in better adapting an African animal to life in, for example, Wiltshire. Life isn't a set of species that can be saved as they are. In a sense that is a recreation of the old view of species as being individually created by God. Life is something indivisible, expressed through certain species for a little while, before changing into something else.


Seals at Blakeney Point, Norfolk

Perhaps the best hope for supporting wildlife is to do so in its normal environments. Rather than taking wildlife out of its usual habitat and putting it on display in a zoo, the idea emerged of protecting wildlife environments, and then allowing people access in a controlled manner to see wildlife in them. This idea began in America. Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872 as a means of preserving the natural environment in a large area of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. This was followed by the establishment of California's Yosemite National Park in 1890. Britain was a long way behind in this, even though there had long been pressure to designate certain environments as deserving special protection. In the first part of the nineteenth century William Wordsworth was famously calling for such protection to be given to the Lake District. There was also an increasing feeling that certain parts of the countryside were too valuable to be held by private owners, and should be managed in the interests of their preservation, and for the enjoyment of all. In 1932, for example, there was a mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District, by people who felt this was an area that should be set aside for conservation and general enjoyment. It was this public feeling which was finally answered by the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949. The legislation created a programme of site designation for conservation. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust set up at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, in 1946 by Peter Scott worked on this premise, setting aside areas of estuarine wetland for conservation, and then allowing people to view the wildlife. Wildfowl and Wetland Trust properties do have elements of zoos, but their main aim is to manage and protect a natural environment which wildlife is using anyway. The migratory Bewick swans which originally inspired Scott to create Slimbridge, spend their summers in Siberia, and only fly in to meet the tourists at Slimbridge in winter. Many other areas of natural habitat are now managed in a similar way. The National Trust, for example, owns parts of the north Norfolk coastline. The area around the end of Blakeney Point in north Norfolk is closed off for part of the year to protect breeding seals. Boat trips are offered from Moston and Blakeney to view the seals safely. The photo here was taken from one of these boats. Seals in this area are only placed temporarily in a more traditional zoo environment if they are found sick, or if pups are abandoned. They are taken to nearby Hunstanton Sea Life Sanctuary, and if at all possible rehabilitated and released back into the sea. Perhaps Blakeney is the culmination of a process which started with small cages in Regents Park. The borders of zoos have become blurred.


Cotswold Wildlife Park

The thoughts that animal parks can inspire get to the heart of the modern dilemma about the natural world. And I'd like to thank my daughter, and her adopted llama Elvis for introducing me to such an important aspect of history.