Ken Livingstone has announced that he wants Regent’s Park Zoo to be free. Not for the animals, who will still be confined, but for the people who come to look at them, who will no longer have to pay. What he proposes, in his manifesto for the London mayoral contest, is to abolish entry charges for the zoo-going public, and to finance the Zoo by taxes on passengers at Heathrow.
Although Livingstone is a former Vice-President of the Zoological Society and still serves on their advisory committee, the proposal has received a somewhat cool response from the Director. “It is always great as a national institution to be the centre of attention,” runs the official response to the Livingstone proposal, “We look forward to discussions if he is elected.”
Once bitten; twice shy. It will be remembered that the last time the Zoo was at the centre of attention was in 1992, when it nearly closed down with a £2 million operating deficit. On that occasion a gift from the Emir of Kuwait and a change of management—followed by mass sackings of staff and animals—managed to pull it out of the red. And in 1995 it won a Millennium Grant to establish a Conservation and Biodiversity exhibit, now nearing completion.
But if Ken Livingstone visited the zoo today he would not find it an elevating experience. The belt-tightening is all too evident in poorly maintained buildings, lack-lustre displays and a general air of dowdiness. Financing entry by an airport tax would be all too appropriate. This is the Heathrow of zoos: ugly, confusing and —even with a slimmed down roster of animals—over-crowded. Catering to its primary clientele—the parents of bored children—means that on summer weekends the Zoo resembles a giant day-care centre. The main justification for an urban zoo is that it instils respect for nature among city-dwellers, but you have to be very optimistic, or work for the Zoo’s publicity office, to see this happening at Regent’s Park today, as boisterous children clamber on the railings and scream at the gibbons, surrounded by a litter of ice-cream wrappers.
Zoos of this kind are monuments to the human attempt to impose order on nature, the great enterprise that has brought about both the beauty of scientific understanding and the tragedy of environmental destruction. Apologists for zoos argue that they have a central role reconciling these two tendencies, that keeping animals in captivity can, for example, safeguard the diversity of species by maintaining breeding populations that are threatened in the wild. That is to say, that the animals in the zoo comprise a set of back-up copies of endangered genotypes. All this may well be true, but is it a reason to have a cramped, underfunded zoo in the middle of London? Not really. These laudable aims could be carried out more economically and effectively elsewhere.
The administrators of the zoo are constrained not just by the size of the Regent’s Park site, but by half-a-dozen listed buildings, architectural monuments that can’t be demolished, but which are no longer considered suitable for keeping animals. I wonder if they wouldn’t really rather move the animals to Docklands and take over the Millennium Dome, the dubious project that Ken Livingstone will inherit if he becomes Mayor of London. Instead of the great white elephant in Docklands, why not have real lions and tigers there? It’s true that converting the Millennium Dome into a zoo would cost more than an airport tax could raise, but maybe road traffic could be taxed as well.
The Regent’s Park Zoo is inscribed not just in architectural history, but in the history of literature. In the recently-published Reading Zoos, Randy Malamud catalogues works by modern writers who have been inspired by it. His list includes novels and short stories by Saki, Angus Wilson, Margaret Drabble, Brigid Brophy, Russell Hoban and Sylvia Plath. Many of these zoo stories, such as Angus Wilson’s The Old Men at the Zoo, feature a doomsday scenario, a war or some other cataclysm that breaks open the cages and liberates the animals to roam free through the city. There are those in the Labour Party who view the prospect of a Livingstone victory in the mayoral contest in a similar light, as a major urban disaster in the offing.
At the zoo in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, during the civil war there, something like doomsday did come to pass. I visited the Maputo zoo in 1992, the year the war ended. Most of the animals had vanished, presumed eaten. The remaining keepers had, sensibly, converted the cages into small livestock enclosures where they bred pigs and chickens. Maputo zoo seemed to have been functioning previously as a barracks, but with the return of peace it had become a trysting place for the youth of the city
Turning a corner among the empty cages there, I found myself suddenly face-to-face with a survivor from the zoo’s past. Huge, horned and armour-plated, it was no pig or chicken but a southern white rhino, one of the rarest animals in Africa, and definitely not one you would want to snuggle up to. There was no cage, no fence or wall, just an eighteen-inch drop into the rhino’s enclosure. No barrier between me and Mr Big. I was relieved to note that the rhino was asleep. I started to back away quietly. Then I realised that the poor creature could barely move. Worse, it had been covered with graffiti by mischievous youths, cursory inscriptions scratched on its dusty hide with sticks: Viva O Revolução on its left flank; Abaixo o Imperialismo on its right.
The animal was clearly too decrepit to be dangerous. Power had fled from its limbs. The youths had taken advantage of this to use it as a billboard. Somnolent and alone, abused by passers-by, it was a battered monument to the political history of the country, to the empty revolutionary rhetoric of the liberation movement in Mozambique.
Politics is a zoo, of course. No one knows this better than Ken Livingstone, himself a member of a seemingly endangered species—a left-wing Labour MP. If he does become mayor and if he opens Regent’s Park Zoo to the people, let us hope he starts a programme of radical reform, not just fiscal, but also ethical, one that transforms the nature of the Zoo, changing the relation between the public and the creatures they come to see, and shifting the big animals currently squeezed into the enclosures there to other, bigger pastures.
This would be better than visitors turning a corner, as I did in Maputo, and coming face-to-face with this old white rhino of the Labour Party, lost causes written all over him. ✭
In 1999 Ken Livingstone became London’s first popularly elected mayor. The Regent’s Park Zoo remains unreformed, though. And it still charges entrance fees. In November 2001 an elephant trampled a keeper to death. It was subsequently announced that the elephant house would close.