Monday, 16 September 2013

How very different from the home life of our own dear animals

In my long project to digitize old photos I've just done some from my first visit to London in 1963. My mum was taking her teaching finals, so my dad took me away for three days in the capital. I have to say, as a father-son bonding exercise it was brilliant. We had a great time, staying in a (rather scruffy) hotel in Russell Square, eating in a brilliant Italian restaurant (the first time I'd ever come across raffia-covered bottles and candles that dripped wax down over their bottle supports - actually, the first time I'd eaten Italian food) and seeing all the usual sights.

But what really caught my eye looking at the photos was not the guards at the Tower of London or the other famous buildings, it was a couple of pictures from a visit to London Zoo. At the time there were two animals that were by far the most famous in the land, Chi Chi the panda and Guy the gorilla, both were based in Regent's Park. I have photos of each of them and what stands out to me is how appalling the conditions were that these animals were kept in.

Remember these were the best known, star animal attractions in the whole country. Even up in the wilds of Rochdale I knew both of them by name. Yet we see Guy in a featureless concrete cell and Chi Chi, while at least given some space and a tyre, still in a stark, concrete environment with no attempt to make it feel like nature.

I think it is worth taking a look at these just to see how much the whole zoo business has come on since my youth. There are those who doubt the benefits of zoos, but I think on the whole they do serve a useful purpose, both in terms of education/increasing interest in zoology and in breeding programmes. But when you see those photos there can be little doubt at all that we have got a whole lot better at it since the swinging 60s.

I can't help wonder what zoologists of the time were thinking. It's hardly rocket science to realize that a gorilla, say, is not going to be happy in an environment like that. It's not a matter of animal rights, it would be enough to have a concern for the wellbeing of your specimens. Looking back, it boggles the mind.

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