Saturday, April 26, 2008

London Zoo celebrates its 180th birthday

London Zoo celebrates its 180th birthday

By Richard Gray, Science Correspondent
Last Updated: 1:01pm BST 26/04/2008

It is now one of the world's leading conservation organisations, helping to protect endangered wildlife with breeding programmes, carrying out vital research and educating the public. But when London Zoo opened its doors 180 years ago, experts were more interested in turning its exotic creatures into beasts of burden and farmyard animals.

London Zoo celebrates its 180th birthday
In pictures: 180 years of London Zoo

Photographs, reports and keepers logs, which have been buried in the Zoological Society of London's archive, provide a glimpse of daily life at the world's first scientific zoo when it opened on 27 April 1828. In one report, experts revealed their plans to domesticate some of the animal species at the zoo, including using zebras to pull carts, exploiting reptiles for medicine and turning antelope and exotic birds into farm animals for food.

The zoo even began running trials in 1831 with zebra-drawn passenger carts to give rides to members of the public around the grounds.

"At that time they wanted to make animals less wild and domesticate them," said John Edwards, vice president of the Zoological Society of London and an expert on the history of London Zoo.

"In the early 19th century they would dress up the chimpanzees in human clothes and the public could ride on the animals and play with even the more dangerous animals like bears. That would never happen today.

"The focus now has shifted to such a degree that we are now trying to make sure animals remain wild. They are being bred for reintroduction into the wild rather than being taken out of the wild."

The documents from the zoo's early days have been revealed as part of celebrations marking the 180th anniversary since it opened. Compared to the modern veterinary care and facilities now available, the documents show the challenges that the keepers faced.

Sick animals were regularly treated with a dose of cod liver oil in the absence of any real medicines and they were cared for by the same doctor who also treated the staff rather than a trained vet. Daily logs filled in by the zoo's first superintendent, Edward Johnson, reveal the day to day trials and tribulations that faced the staff as they prepared to open the zoo for the first time.

On Monday 25 February 1828, he notes that an otter died as a result of a "diseased tail". Two weeks later, a lynx suffered a convulsive fit and also died.

Despite the deaths, the records also reveal great excitement about an emu at the zoo, which was a prolific egg layer. But this excitement was tempered when a female seal disappeared two weeks before the zoo opened. It was only recaptured two days before the public arrived.

In 1905 two polar bears Sam and Barbara escaped from their enclosure after biting the padlock off a gate but were frightened back inside after a startled keeper dropped a plank of wood when he found them wandering the park. The daily logbook also reveal that one of the few accidents involving humans at the zoo saw an inebriated keeper Edward Girling die after being bitten by a cobra in 1852.

A Marabou stork was also found at one point to have swallowed a domestic cat used in the zoo to control vermin, but it was "induced to disgorge it".

Mr Edwards said: "In those days there were no tranquillizer darts, so they faced some real difficulties in controlling the animals. It must have been quite terrifying as there were no methods of subduing the animals except by guile or brute force.

"The zoo's first hippopotamus escaped in 1860 and it had quite a savage temper. The superintendent sent out one of the keepers to get it to chase him and the keeper ran back into the enclosure so the hippo followed him."

The zoo's first animal was a Griffin vulture called Dr Brooks, named after the anatomy school teacher who donated him. He had used the bird to devour the cadavers at the school, but when he retired he could no longer feed it.

After the first year the zoo had 627 animals from 194 different species, with many donated by famous patrons including King William IV.

In the first three years after the zoo opened, visitors were only allowed inside if they were personally invited by one of the fellows of the Zoological Society and paid a shilling entrance. Visits on Sundays were strictly banned, but despite the restrictive rules, which were relaxed in 1831, the zoo saw more than 112,226 visitors in its first year.

It now boasts more than 1.1 million visitors a year and 16,800 animals, made up of 711 species.


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