The tale of how London Zoo survived and thrived through lockdown

ZSL London Zoo is open to the public once again. Eleanor Doughty was first in through the gates to greet some of the residents and go behind the scenes of the charity’s conservation programmes.

It’s 9am on a Friday morning and I am being stared at by a gorilla. He blinks, I blink back, then hastily look away, not fancying my chances against a great ape.

This is a normal encounter at ZSL London Zoo, which re-opened in April after restrictions were lifted. Once upon a time, it had a bear pit, but the raucous crowds of the 18th century are long gone. Instead, a Covid-compliant one-way system is in action, guiding visitors decorously from penguin to post.

Magnificent lowland gorilla

The zoo was established in Regent’s Park, NW1, in 1826, by Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, and the chemist Sir Humphry Davy. In April 1828, it opened for the first time to fellows of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), with an orangutan, an Arabian oryx, and the now-extinct thylacine, a carnivorous marsupial, among other creatures, on display.

Given a Royal Charter by George IV the following year, the zoo opened to the public in 1847. A list published in 1883 of ‘the vertebrate animals now or lately living in the gardens of the Zoological Society of London’ runs to more than 700 pages, listing an extraordinary array of creatures, from the yellow-legged herring gull to the crab-eating opossum. An official guide, published in 1911 and sold for sixpence, listed a ‘polar bears’ pond’, a ‘mouse-house’ and a ‘deer and cattle-house’.

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In 1915, a female black bear called Winnipeg, or Winnie, who had been rescued by Lt Harry Colebourn, a member of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps, came to live at the zoo. After the war, an up-and-coming writer called Alan Milne visited Winnie, bringing with him his young son Christopher.

Various accounts exist of the young Milne’s reaction to Winnie, who was quite tame; the author Enid Blyton reported that ‘the bear hugged Christopher and they had a glorious time together, rolling about’. Not long after, both bear and writer shot to fame: Mr Milne as the celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne, and Winnie as his silly old bear Winnie-the-Pooh. A statue of Lt Colebourn and his bear now stands near the zoo’s war memorial.

hipppotami Neville and Daisy bask in 1953

Today, there are more than 750 species, comprising about 20,000 animals, from Bactrian camels to organ-pipe coral.

Nicholas Burnham is a zookeeper working with the 19 species of primates in the zoo — gorillas, gibbons, and macaques among them. His day begins at 8am: ‘You come in and feed the animals, check their health, clean the exhibits, and get them ready for the public to arrive at 10am,’ says Mr Burnham.

Gorillas, perhaps contrary to their appearance (and size, as males can weigh up to 200kg), are ‘one of the calmest great apes, and really fun to play with,’ says Mr Burnham, as five-year-old Gernot surveys us from above, smooshing his face against the glass. ‘They will just watch you,’ says Mr Burnham. ‘They don’t trust you straightaway — you’ve got to earn their trust.’ The gorillas’ indoor gym at the zoo is ‘reflective of the canopy-style environment in which they’d be found in west Africa,’ says the keeper.

London Zoo has nutritionists to manage the animals’ diets and vegetables arrive thrice weekly from New Covent Garden Market in Vauxhall, SW8. Alongside the giant fridges in the kitchen and a freezer containing brown bread (a treat for the okapis) stands a selection of perfumes and spices. These are part of the animals’ enrichment.

‘Anything you can stimulate them with to keep them entertained throughout the day, we use,’ explains Mr Burnham. In hot weather, the gorillas have ice lollies, although not the kind we’d want to eat: ‘Squash with some pulses inside, perhaps some sweetcorn, peas, and chickpeas. And we’ll put a twig in it, so they can actually hold it like a lolly.’

Asiatic lion Bhanu at the London zoo

Over in the lion enclosure, keepers spray perfume on trees to stimulate the animal’s natural instincts. ‘Bhanu, our male lion, will follow the scent and spray his own on the trees.’ Chilli is given out in small quantities, but ‘the tigers prefer ginger,’ reveals Mr Burnham. ‘Any colognes you don’t want, please donate them because we will use them.’

More than one million people visited the zoo in 2019, but it is not merely a visitor attraction. Ticket sales help to fund global research into some of the planet’s most endangered animals. One of the zoo’s long-running projects is the conservation of the Partula snail, native to French Polynesia. Starting in 1994, the zoo has coordinated an international breeding programme and visitors can visit the Partula lab as part of the new ‘Tiny Giants’ exhibition, which focuses on the smallest animals on earth.

Paul Pearce-Kelly has worked at the zoo since 1982, when he began studying mammals. Today, he is the zoo’s senior curator, specialising in invertebrates. ‘I’ve been blessed, having this opportunity,’ he says. ‘In the past 30 years, we’ve developed more invertebrate-focused work than pretty much any other collection in the world.’

Giraffe close-up at the London Zoo

Of course, the work goes beyond the lab; ZSL has been involved in conserving Siberian tigers in Russia since 2006, cheetahs in Africa since 2007 and angel sharks in Spanish waters since 2013. The zoo community, attests Mr Pearce-Kelly, is a special, global one. ‘Some 10% of the world’s population goes through the main zoos every year. If you can reach even a small percentage of those people, you can change policy.’

As well as research, the zoo has long been a place for quiet contemplation. Mr Pearce-Kelly explains that, in the lead up to the First World War, minister for war and keen ornithologist Sir Edward [later Viscount] Grey would come to the birdhouse to help settle his mind.

The zoo plays an important role in the city’s identity, he adds. ‘There’s a sense that it’s simply part of London — and I like that. There is a collective cultural element to it.’