New book and 2004 volume detail the origins of zoos as we know them
LONDON, U.K.––Scheduled for official publication by Viking/Pegasus on April 4, 2017, The Zoo: The Wild And Wonderful Tale Of The Founding Of London Zoo, by British television producer Isobel Charman, has drawn pre-publication raves from reviewers fortunate enough to receive advance copies, and has already stimulated much online discussion about the plight of zoo animals in general, the future of zoos, if any, and whether zoos should even exist.
The Tower Menagerie
Critics have apparently not yet mentioned The Tower Menagerie: The Amazing 600-Year History of the Royal Collection of Wild & Ferocious Beasts Kept at the Tower of London, a 2004 volume by Daniel Hahn, but the two books might well be read back-to-back. Together they would appear to form a fairly complete history of the evolution of wildlife exhibition.
Sir Stamford Raffles
The London Zoo, Charman explained recently to Bill Gibb of the Sunday Post, was the last project of Sir Stamford Raffles, 1781-1826, best known as the founder of modern-day Singapore. Knighted in 1817 for distinguished service to the British Empire as a soldier and diplomat, Raffles was nonetheless refused burial at his local parish church because of his opposition to slavery.
Representing the British Empire at many stops in Southeast Asia, Raffles had abolished slavery wherever he went, and had simultaneously introduced free public schooling both in English and in the local indigenous languages.
“Raffles had spent his career working for the East India Company,” Charman told Gibb, “and he’d amassed a huge private collection of exotic animals – apparently, on his estate in Sumatra, his children had shared their nursery with tiger cubs while a monkey joined the family every evening at the dinner table! On returning to Britain in 1824 he wanted to set up something similar for the good of the nation and the purposes of scientific study – only on a much bigger scale.”
Raffles might have founded a zoo in Singapore, circa 50 years before the debut of the Singapore Botanic Gardens zoo, and about 150 years before the present Singapore Zoo opened in 1973, with a collection of 270 animals representing 72 species, but Raffles had been on the losing end of a political dispute that eventually saw his estate presented with a bill, impossible to pay, for financial losses incurred in building the city of Singapore.
“Initially, Raffles’ plans [to build the London Zoo] were ridiculed,” Charman recounted. “One newspaper nicknamed his Zoological Society the ‘Noah’s Ark Society’ and claimed that the aim was to propagate ‘strange reptiles’ all over the Kingdom.”
“Exotic creatures nearly impossible to keep alive”
Elaborated Meghan Rosen for Science News on March 20, 2017, “Charman resurrects almost three decades of history, beginning in 1824, when the zoo was still just a fantastical idea: a public menagerie of animals ‘that would allow naturalists to observe the creatures scientifically.’
“It was a long, hard path to that lofty dream, though,” Rosen recounted. “In the zoo’s early years, exotic creatures were nearly impossible to keep alive.”
Charman’s book, Rosen assessed, “is an incredible piece of detective work, told through the eyes of many key players and famous figures, including Charles Darwin. She portrays a London that’s gritty, grimy and cold, where some aspects of science and medicine seem stuck in the Dark Ages. Doctors still used leeches to bleed patients, and no one had a clue how to care for zoo animals. What seems laughably obvious now — animals need shelter in winter, cakes and buns aren’t proper food for elephants — took zookeepers years to figure out.”
But long before city-hosted nonprofit zoos existed, with the London Zoo as prototype for the western world, there were for-profit menageries. Before there were menageries, there were spectacles, featuring fights to the death among captive beasts whose ferocity was tested on dogs and prisoners.
Centuries before the modern history of England began with the Norman Conquest in 1066, before William the Conqueror began building the Tower of London as his royal residence, spectacles and menageries emerged and evolved in almost every civilization. As only monarchs could afford to acquire much more than a single dancing bear, presenting spectacles and menageries reinforced royal status from ancient times onward.
All of this Daniel Hahn recounted in depth and detail in his 2004 opus The Tower Menagerie: The Amazing 600-Year History of the Royal Collection of Wild & Ferocious Beasts Kept at the Tower of London.
A palace before a prison
The Tower Menagerie, the most enduring of menageries and spectacle venues, was reputedly begun by King John (1199-1216). Written records of it date from the 1235 arrival of several gift leopards, followed by lions and a polar bear, who fished in the Thames.
Best known today as a former royal prison, the Tower was a palace for much longer than it was a place of confinement. The animals, at first, appear to have been treated with relative privilege. Ill-informed care appears to have been a much more frequent problem than cruelty. The first elephant, for instance, died after the keepers gave him wine to help him cope with cold weather.
The monarchs who were most interested in the menagerie, unfortunately, included the notoriously sadistic James I, Henry III, and Elizabeth I. Only the small size of the site appears to have held the bloodshed in their regimes to less than was spilled in the Roman Colosseum.
Akbar & Cromwell
Efforts to reform either spectacles or menageries into educational institutions do not appear to have begun anywhere before the 16th century regime of the Indian mogul Akbar the Great.
“In the 16th century,” explained zoo historian and designer David Hancocks in his 2001 book A Different Nature, “the Mogul emperor Akbar the Great established zoos in various Indian cities which far surpassed in quality and size anything in Europe. Unlike the cramped European menageries, Akbar’s zoos provided spacious enclosures and cages, built in large reserves. Each had a resident doctor, and Akbar encouraged careful study of animals. His zoos were open to the public. At the entrance to each he posted a message: ‘Meet your brothers. Take them to your hearts, and respect them.'”
British soldiers returning home after postings to India eventually brought Akbar’s ideas to London, and were instrumental in founding both the London Humane Society (which became the Royal SPCA in 1840) and the London Zoo.
Meanwhile, in the 17th century British regent Oliver Cromwell deplored the Tower Menagerie and tried to close it.
The approach to zookeeping introduced by Akbar remained unknown in England until 1822, when cleaning up the Tower Menagerie became a first priority of the newly incorporated London Humane Society.
Their first victory came with the hiring of Alfred Cops, the only professionally trained keeper that the Tower Menagerie ever had. Ten years later the London Humane Society won the transfer of most of the animals to the then just opened London Zoo, by order of the Duke of Wellington, who appears to have been less motivated by the prospect of improving the animals’ care than by an obsession with restoring the Tower to some semblance of military usefulness.
In summarizing a wealth of findings that have emerged from recent scholarship and an archaeological dig in 1999-2000, Tower Menagerie author Daniel Hahn made a few mistakes, detailed in the July/August 2003 edition of International Zoo News. Yet they were of minor note. The Tower Menagerie was and remains a lucid and provocative volume, which alongside The Zoo: The Wild And Wonderful Tale Of The Founding Of London Zoo should be of gripping interest to anyone concerned with the past, present, and future of animals in zoos and entertainment.