Despite living in the UK for nearly 20 years, there are still large swathes of the country I haven’t seen. I’ve been up to the Orkney Islands at the tip of Scotland but have never properly visited Cornwall. I attended a wedding in Norwich once, but much of the east coast—Essex, Kent, Sussex—remains an absolute mystery. Trips to London must be in the high double digits, if not somewhere in the hundreds, but I’ve only recently discovered the joys of the British Library.
Extended trips to Cornwall or Kent are a bit tricky while teaching at the moment, but MrElaineous and I have tried to make up for our pandemic absence from London with monthly day trips. Our most recent one saw us visit another neglected area of the capital: the London Zoo, better known as ZSL (Zoological Society of London).
This zoo combines wildlife and conservation with a rich history. Founded in 1826 by the improbably named Sir Stamford Raffles, the original collection of animals was meant for scientific study: Charles Darwin was an early ZSL Fellow. This gives it the title of the world’s oldest scientific zoo, and it wasn’t long before it fully opened to the public (and adopted the menagerie kept at the Tower of London, which is a story for another blog post). It is also the holder of many world firsts: the first reptile house, the first insect house, the first public aquarium, and even the first children’s zoo. It is now a leading force for conservation across the globe and participates in breeding programme for over 130 species. It even gave the world a beloved literary figure; more on that later.
Getting to the zoo itself is a bit of an adventure. The closest tube station is in Camden Town, a vibrant area full of street art and food stalls, and a place well worth a gander on its own merits. Walking along the High Street takes you to the Regent’s Canal, a watercourse that previously served as a highway for the barges that delivered goods to the centre of the capital. Today, it is home to canal narrowboats and watersports, and with joggers, dog walkers, and zoo-bound tourists like us using the towpath to get from A to B without worrying about traffic.
We arrived at opening time on a gorgeous summer’s day, and I have to admit that my expectations were well and truly blown away by the time we left. Based on my pre-departure study of the map, I had assumed it was a fairly small zoo. After all, it’s tucked into a corner of The Regent’s Park*, and its development throughout the 19th and 20th centuries caused me to assume it was bound by a Victorian layout, much like the zoo in my adopted hometown of Bristol. And yet what they manage to do with this space is incredible … and they did successfully annex a patch of land beyond the canal, extending the zoo’s offerings even further.
We headed to this new-ish area first, passing through a tunnel under the road filled with even more incredible street art. This area housed African animals such as giraffes, zebras, wild dogs and pygmy hippos, and we ventured into Monkey Valley for what would be the first of many walk throughs that allow visitors to get up close and personal with various critters. Nocturnal animals and a miniature rainforest completed the collection.
Yes, the The is part of the name!
Returning to the main part of the zoo, we perched by the penguin pool where we willed them to go for a swim while we were watching. They would edge closer and closer to the water, but it seemed that no one wanted to be the first to go in … until some brave soul finally took the plunge. A great blue heron was a bonus bird, his lanky frame failing to blend in with the short and stocky Humboldt penguins. I’m assuming he was there for the free fish.
Next up was a small but perfectly formed butterfly paradise created in the shape of a caterpillar. It contained butterflies and moths of all sizes, shapes, and colours that seemed to defy gravity as they winged their way from flower to fruit plate. The giant Atlas moth was a firm favourite, and the passion of one of the volunteers for the mimicry of the owl butterfly—it avoids predation by using a wing pattern that looks like the eyes of the eponymous bird of prey—helped us see these incredible pollinators in a whole new light.
A statue can be found near the butterfly paradise that commemorates the rather unusual story of a former ZSL resident. In 1914, a Canadian army officer named Harry Colebourn purchased a black bear cub in Ontario before departing overseas for World War I. The bear was named Winnie after the lieutenant’s hometown of Winnipeg, and she became a pet of the soldiers. Lieutenant Colebourn wisely left Winnie in the care of ZSL while he fought in the trenches of France. Although he returned safely from the war, Harry decided to give Winnie to ZSL, where she became a much-loved attraction in the zoo. One set of fans was author A.A. Milne and his son Christopher; Milne immortalised both his son and the bear as Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh.
As the day began to heat up, the rest of the morning became a blur of giant tortoises from the Galapagos, flamingos, Asiatic lions, spider monkeys, and various macaques. The building housing the minibeasts and coral reefs was not air conditioned, but it was out of the direct force of the sun, so it made for a good spot to cool down while looking at the myriad of forms that insects and arachnids have adopted to take advantage of environmental niches.
Arachnophobes, look away now. I didn’t take any photos of the minibeasts in this area because it was hard to focus on the very small ones through the glass and the larger ones looked like sticks or leaves and were perfectly camouflaged in their environment. However, they do have a spider walk through, where over 70 golden orb spiders and Madagascar weaver spiders hang out and chill while waiting to catch flies. As a spider-friendly household that practically has a resident arachnid in every corner, it was incredible to get up close (but, admittedly, not too close) to these fascinating creatures.
By the time midday rolled around, the animals had the right idea and decided to tackle the heat by taking a siesta. Lions, tigers, and gorillas were sprawled out in the shade of their respective enclosures, and everyone observing them agreed it was the wise choice. However, one animal that wasn’t taking it easy was a type of wild hog known as a babirusa (or, more colloquially, as demon pigs or deer pigs). This prehistoric-looking swine from Indonesia boasts four tusks, two of which grow through the skin of the animal’s snout. Ouch!
The zoo is also home to incredibly endangered Bactrian camels, the two-humped variety that live in China and Mongolia. They were shedding their winter fur at the time and looked a little worse for wear, but it made me wonder whether the sparrows we saw zipping about everywhere had lined their nests with camel fur, which I imagine would be a step up from the usual British sheep’s wool.
The reptile house was in flux during our visit since many of the critters were in the process of moving from the century-old building to a new, bespoke structure across the park. Even the ones who were supposed to be in their enclosures could be difficult to spot. Anyone who has ever visited a reptile house probably has had the same thought: “Is that frog/snake/lizard/turtle actually in there?”
The section dedicated to animals from the Australian Outback also seemed empty, and I suspect even these heat-tolerant critters were seeking shade. There was no sign of any wallabies, but we did spy a rather sleepy looking emu.
An animal that was not tricky find was the Komodo dragon. These 10-foot lizards are the largest in the world, and the one we saw was happily up and about and not at all fazed by the heat. According to a poster in the dragon house, keepers help them mimic their natural behaviour by laying down scent trails and playing tug-of-war. It certainly gives a whole new meaning to dragon taming!
Another poster that caught my eye was one dedicated to Dr Joan Procter, who in 1923 became the first female Curator of Reptiles and later designed the reptile house itself. Although chronic ill-health led to her early death, she made a lasting mark on ZSL. In particular, the description of her travelling through the zoo in a wheelchair with a tame Komodo dragon on a leash seems to lend itself to being turned into a film or TV series. One for Netflix perhaps?
Before I write about the wonders of The Regent’s Park itself, I know there is a debate about whether zoos should exist at all. My own views on the matter are complicated.
The state of the world is such that many of the animals at ZSL would struggle—are struggling—in their native habitats. Deforestation, pollution, loss of habitat or habitat fragmentation, climate change, hunting, illegal trade in animals or their parts … all result in a world that is losing its biodiversity at a rapid rate.
ZSL is about conservation, and the animals on display are born in captivity and not taken from the wild. Zoos like ZSL also serve to light the spark in the next generation. The zoo was full of school children when we were there and, yes, I suspect simply having a day outside of school on a sunny day was motivational for some. But being able to come face to face with a penguin, a tiger, or the world’s largest lizard can have an impact that is felt for a lifetime.
To quote Jacques-Yves Cousteau, “People protect what they love, they love what they understand, and they understand what they are taught.” Zoos are one such way to foster this love and understanding.
Personally, I’d like to imagine a world where zoos aren’t necessary, where wildlife had the space to be wild. Where people respected the natural world and saw humans as a part of nature rather than apart from it.
However, we’re not there yet, and, until we are, I think there will be a role for zoos like ZSL to remind us of what we stand to lose if we don’t take action to protect what little wilderness we have left.
ZSL’s home—The Regent’s Park–was designed in the early 19th century under the orders of the Prince Regent, and it is now one of the eight Royal Parks of London. It covers nearly 400 acres with a mix of formal gardens, fields, and avenues of trees that just beg to be explored. The sheer amount of green space makes it easy to forget that you’re in the heart of a bustling capital city. And if you’re looking for even more entertainment beyond a visit to ZSL, there’s also a boating lake and open-air theatre.
In June, the roses in Queen Mary’s Garden within the Inner Circle of the park should be considered a must-see London attraction. They are the largest collection of roses in the city, with over 12,000 planted in large beds. Each bed contains the same variety, resulting in stunning blocks of colour: classic reds and pinks, bright whites and yellows, pale peaches and delicate purples. Each bed was labelled with the rose’s name, which ranged from romantic (Tiamo, I Only Have Eyes for You, Golden Anniversary) to descriptive (Charisma, Gorgeous, You’re Beautiful) to the slightly silly (Hot Chocolate, Rock and Roll). Regardless of their given names, Shakespeare was definitely on to something: whatever you choose to call them, the roses not only smell sweet, but they look incredible.