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Zoology: Animal crackers

Nature volume 539, pages 2930 (03 November 2016) | Download Citation

Henry Nicholls relishes a brace of chronicles on how zoos on both sides of the Atlantic came to be.

The Zoo: The Wild and Wonderful Tale of the Founding of London Zoo


Viking: 2016. 9781681773568 9780241240687

The Animal Game: Searching for Wildness at the American Zoo


Harvard University Press: 2016. 9780674737341

Stamford Raffles did not waste his time. In 1825, little more than six months after returning to London from the East Indies, he'd put together a prospectus that would result in the creation of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). With his career as an entrepreneur-cum-statesman in Penang, Java, Sumatra and Singapore behind him, Raffles was ready to indulge his passion for natural history.

Obaysch the hippo was captured in 1849 and sent to London Zoo, where he became a sensation. Image: SSPL/Getty

The relationship between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom has always changed and will always change. But there can be few shifts as rapid and radical as those in the nineteenth century. With the age of sail in full swing and European docksides piled with boxes of specimens, a new class of professional zoologist arose. The likes of Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace began to make sense of the astounding variety of animal life. The period covered in Isobel Charman's The Zoo, 1824–51, saw much of the transformative action. Meanwhile, historian Daniel Bender's The Animal Game chronicles the evolution of the US zoo from the 1870s to the 1970s.

Charman has hit on a delightful structure for her “wild and wonderful tale”. Each chapter is a leg in a relay. So Raffles hands over to Decimus Burton, the ambitious twenty-something architect who began to shape the zoological gardens in Regent's Park in 1827. Veterinary surgeon Charles Spooner is next, his struggle to keep the animals alive in the 1830s foreshadowing concerns over animal welfare. On the upside, the deceased creatures were a bonus for chief animal preserver John Gould and the ZSL's museum in Mayfair, a collection subsumed into the British Museum in 1855. Gould pops up again later with a selection of Galapagos finches, which helped Darwin to develop the case for evolution by natural selection. Thus Charman takes the story out of the cages and onto the smoggy, sometimes riotous streets of Victorian London, up and down the country and beyond its shores.

With an imperial network of travellers and traders, customs officials and collectors, dealers and diplomats all sending specimens to London, the nascent zoo boasted an impressive diversity of animals from the off. During its first decades, the zoological gardens remained relatively exclusive, as its fellows mulled over the peculiar physiology, morphology and behaviour of inmates such as a chimpanzee that they named Tommy. The public, meanwhile, indulged their curiosity at venerable but unashamedly unscientific menageries such as the Exeter Exchange on London's the Strand. Soon, Raffles' original vision, emphasizing the animals as objects of scientific research, became hard to sustain. The ZSL gave up its farm outside Kingston upon Thames — a site for breeding and experiments — and opened the gates of the zoological gardens in the 1840s. It also began to bring in crowd-pleasers such as giraffes and hippopotamuses.

What is perhaps most striking about The Zoo is its style. “He could see it now, in his mind's eye,” Charman writes as Raffles' plans take shape. “All of these beasts, from across the earth, from every corner of the endless Empire, gathered right here! He could almost hear the roars.” It is clear that a huge amount of research has gone into this work, but much is lost among imagined thoughts and feelings. In writing non-fiction novelistically, Charman fails to take full advantage of the strengths of either genre.

Bender takes a more conservative approach in The Animal Game. Given the imperial premise of a robust zoological collection, it makes perfect sense that the appearance of US zoos should map onto the emergence of the nation as a global power towards the end of the nineteenth century. The Philadelphia Zoological Society — the country's oldest — appeared in 1859, although it achieved a permanent collection (including an Asian elephant, Jennie) only some 15 years later. Others included Lincoln Park Zoo (Chicago, Illinois, in 1868), the National Zoo (Washington DC, 1889) and the Bronx Zoological Park in New York City (1899). In many ways, the stories of these institutions mirror the ZSL's. As with Raffles, “those urban elites who dreamed of zoological parks fantasized that displays of biological order would beget social order”, writes Bender: nature's hierarchy offered a model to the masses. Also like the ZSL, US zoological societies struggled to distinguish themselves from low-brow entertainment — menageries, circuses and world fairs.

William Mann, fifth director of the National Zoo in Washington DC, travelled widely to collect animals. Image: Tony Linck/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

“Urban elites who dreamed of zoological parks fantasized that displays of biological order would beget social order.”

Whereas the animal trade is implicit in The Zoo, Bender's book renders it explicit through characters such as Frank Buck — animal dealer, showman and film star — and William Mann, the pith-helmeted director of the National Zoo from 1925 to 1956. In 1937, Mann travelled to the Far East to secure tigers (at US$100 a pair), a Sumatran gibbon, cassowaries, orang-utans and more. In Africa, he had to manage his own collecting, on one occasion employing 500 locals in a failed attempt to net a giraffe. When he sailed for the United States, he had a cargo of 1,500 animals, but many were dying: a crate of 14 pythons was summarily thrown overboard.

During the Great Depression, bankrolled by federal coffers, many zoos began to reconfigure with new displays such as “monkey islands” surrounded by moats. Captive breeding eventually appeared, as much by necessity as design: by the 1960s, centuries of exploitation had devastated wild animal populations. The only way that zoos could survive was to put more effort into breeding their own animals.

Bender zips back and forth from institution to institution, on collecting trips with traders, and with visitors feeding the animals snacks (and on occasion, broken bottles and roofing nails). He draws on rich archival material, including the thoughts of key players such as zoologist William Temple Hornaday, memos from management and a flurry of clippings from the popular press. In the century that he covers, US zoos faced challenges from economic ups and downs to rogue animals, disgruntled staff and a demanding public.

What emerges is a story of adaptation and survival that exposes the modern zoo as “a third nature”, a “product of how we built, lived, and contested empires. It is wildness and wilderness suspended at the moment of their initial enclosure when there were still plenty of animals for the taking.” Those who are ethically opposed to zoos will find plenty here to strengthen their case. But with zoos' power of reinvention, it seems likely that this “third nature” will be with us for some time.

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  1. Henry Nicholls is a journalist based in London. His latest book is The Galapagos.

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Correspondence to Henry Nicholls.

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