Saturday, June 30, 2012

Animals in the Zoo

Standing to attention.

Recently, a lively 12-year-old was visiting, so where better to spend the day than London Zoo? We took the scenic route to get there, travelling from Little Venice along the Regent’s Canal in a low canal boat, alighting at the back door of the Zoo. 

What's in here?

London Zoo is an institution: it’s the world’s oldest scientific zoo, opening in 1828 as a scientific study collection. The public were allowed in in 1847, and they’re still visiting today. An interesting bit of trivia: one of the original founders was Sir Stamford Raffles, he of Singapore fame. Until 1902 it was assumed that exotic animals couldn’t survive outside in London’s awful weather - a natural assumption, I’d say - and they were all kept indoors. Then a reorganisation occurred, new ideas led to new buildings and enclosures, and the animals thrived outdoors. A larger site was bought and opened in 1931, which became the Whipsnade Zoo. Today that’s where they keep the elephants and rhino and other Big Guys.

The Victorians apparently loved their Zoo, flocking especially to the Aquarium, the first ever opened to the public. But old buildings, cramped conditions, and a turn of public sentiment against viewing animals in captivity led to trouble for the Zoo. In the 1980s it was threatened with closure, but the public then changed its collective mind and rallied behind the Zoo to keep it open. It doesn’t receive any public funding, and has to raise everything from donations and operating profits. London Zoo also has a big culture of volunteer support and you can - if you’re so inclined - volunteer to be a keeper for a day. This will, you understand, inevitably involve cleaning up animal muck, but it will bring you a closer encounter with the critters.

The Aquarium: popular with the Victorians

The Zoo has made a big effort in recent years to provide animal enclosures which replicate as far as possible their wild habitat. Thus you can visit a quite snazzy Gorilla House, a walk-through tropical rainforest, and a bird aviary. The penguins now have a nice new enclosure - though if I were them, I might miss the lovely blue & white, P&O/Art Deco penguin pool they used to occupy.

The elegant old Penguin Pool

Zoos are good for scientific study, for introducing children (and adults) to exotic animals, and for preserving threatened species. But at the end of the day I must admit to a big preference for seeing wild animals in the wild, if at all possible without wrecking their habitat, or getting eaten. 

The original "Winnie-the-Pooh"

Oh, but before we leave London Zoo, here's an interesting story: it seems that in 1914 a Canadian soldier purchased a black bear in Ontario as a pet, and it became a mascot for his regiment. He named her "Winnie" after his home-town of Winnipeg. When he served on the Western Front in Europe he left the bear in the care of the London Zoo (I don't know why he took the bear with him from Canada to Europe and the war front - seems eccentric). After the war, he donated the bear to the Zoo, and she became a popular exhibit. She was frequently visited by...yes, you guessed it, A.A.Milne and his son, Christopher Robin, becoming the inspiration and original of that bear of very little brain, Winnie-the-Pooh. "Winnie" died in 1934, but London Zoo has a statue to commemorate her.

THIS was in the Reptile House

It's a Radiated Tortoise from Madgascar - amazing, eh?
But don't buy one as a pet- they are rare, and endangered by the pet trade.

Watch the very restful Sloth. We could all learn something from this animal.

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