Screen Shot 2013-11-04 at 10.39.14Fig. 1 “There he was, my other half, long-nosed, nice-eyed, easy to hurt, and mellow. I knew we’d be friends forever. And we are.” – Andrew O Hagan on the Tapir at London Zoo

But it never came. Once let through the gates I rushed about like a hyperactive child, swept up by the carnival like atmosphere of the place. Children and adults filed around the cages in fake policeman helmets chattering and hooting at the animals and one another. Speakers perched between plastic palms and faux granite boulders emitting the stretched twangs of ambient music. The air was thick with the overpowering smell of warm dung. It was a pandemonium. How O’Hagan could quietly commune with a tapir in such a place I don’t know. Undeterred, I followed my nose to the hippo house and watched a pair of shiny pygmy hippos floating about in a pea green lagoon. The steamy room made me drowsy and I propped myself against the railings and began to daydream. My jealous mind turned to O’Hagan’s tapir again, snatching my Eureka moment from me. I visited every single creature in the place: the naked mole rats, the mongeese, the ibis, not to mention the wretched tapirs. I scrutinised a giant rabbit for a good fifteen minutes. And still nothing came to me. By then it was half past five and a loudspeaker was ushering me out into Regent’s Park. I returned home exhausted and happy but no wiser.

Once back at my desk in the austere surroundings of the Bishopsgate library I started to reflect upon my trip. I found stepping back and thinking about zoos a painful experience. In the cold, sobering light of the library they look like cruel animal prisons. An alert mind, untainted by the zoo’s heady atmosphere, quickly realises that the naturalistic animal enclosures, which have replaced steel bars with cliffs, waterfalls and copses of tropical trees and shrubs in today’s zoos, are in fact thinly veiled cages. To a British visitor they may look like perfect replications of their occupants’ home ranges but no amount of imitation liana can convince a gibbon that it is not trapped in a concrete box. Naturalistic settings merely make the prison walls less visible to visitors. London Zoo’s Gorilla Kingdom may look like a large garden. It is full of trees, climbing frames and rope ladders and is surrounded by a small moat. But beneath the surface of this innocent looking waterway lies lines of electrified razor wire, observable only to the most discerning tourist. Seemingly benevolent zoo keepers hold ultimate power over the births, lives and deaths of these animals. Unruly and unwanted animals are dispatched as a matter of protocol. Gerald Durrell never forgave London Zoo after they shot his pet chimpanzee Chulmondeley, or Chumley for short. Durrell had got to know Chumley on an expedition to British Cameroons, and found that they shared a love of beer and cigarettes.

‘I lit my smoke and handed Chumley the matches thinking this would fool him. He opened the box, took out a match, struck it, lit his cigarette, threw the matches down on the table, crossed his legs again and lay back in his chair inhaling thankfully, and blowing clouds of smoke out his nose. Obviously he had vices in his make-up of which I had been kept in ignorance.’

Another of Chumley’s proficiencies was escaping from London Zoo, which he did twice. The first attempt was quite successful: he sprinted across Regent’s Park to Gloucester Gate and hopped on a bus. The second attempt ended in Chumley’s untimely death at the hands of an exasperated keeper. Just as the razor wire is hidden within a moat, this story cannot be found on the London Zoo website. Such things force you to think about the role of zoos and this is always an uncomfortable process for anyone who feels compassion for animals.

Having said this, it seems that society needs zoos. They have been around for hundreds of years and can be found in almost every country in the world. London got its first zoo back in the twelfth century in the form of a menagerie housed in the Tower of London. Up until the nineteenth century visitors could choose between paying an entrance fee or bringing along a live cat or dog to be fed to the Tower leopards. Zoos satisfy certain human psychological needs. Some, like Jonathon Miller, go to the zoo to experience a sense of superiority over dumb creatures. Others go there to behave like animals. At Zoo Lates, advertised as ‘London’s wildest night out’, people get drunk and hit one another with inflatable gloves. Today’s zoos also play an essential role in conservation efforts and captive breeding programmes. Their importance and numbers are set to grow as areas of sparsely inhabited wilderness shrink. Zoo walls are increasingly needed to keep humans out as much as they are needed to keep animals in. Much of the world’s megafauna lives in fenced parks which are guarded against poaching and habitat appropriation. Some species such as the American bison no longer survive outside of enclosures. The world’s last remaining population of Asiatic Lions, a species that once ranged across Turkey and Iran, live in a 500 square mile wildlife sanctuary in Western Gujarat. Such a fate is likely to be increasingly commonplace for large animals. The Ecology professor Corey Bradshaw gloomily predicts that in a few decades there may no longer be any truly wild, unenclosed, large herbivores left in existence.

During the French Revolution Jacobins stormed private zoos and liberated their occupants, extending their fight for the rights of man to include the rights of animals. After an afternoon of research in the library I felt similarly inclined towards the bestial prisoners at London Zoo. I dreamt of prising open their cages and releasing them into Regent’s Park. After all, exotic escapees like ring necked parakeets and terrapins live freely and harmoniously alongside Londoners. Surely tamarins and giraffes could too find a home for themselves in the city. I proffered this opinion to various friends and relatives but was met with derisive scoffs. Perhaps they weren’t ready for my radical animal keeping revolution. Or perhaps they had a point. The gaggles of confused beasts which emerged from the French menageries in the revolution didn’t last long in the streets of frightened and starving Parisians. Would a herd of giraffe fare any better in contemporary London?

As Bradshaw points out, animals are commonly kept in zoos because they can no longer survive outside of them. So it seems that the electrified moat and bullet proof glass ramparts of Gorilla Kingdom are destined to stay secure. It is not the Jacobins that the gorillas need most, but the zoo keepers who patrol their compound. For now we must keep the zoo cages locked, however much we wish that the animal inmates could be free. Perhaps this is what Andrew O’Hagan thinks as he gazes lovingly into the eyes of his friend the Malayan Tapir.