BARRY CROSS was elected Secretary of the Zoological Society of London in September 1988 amidst the euphoria of the society's having just received a 'one-off' government grant of pounds 10m towards reestablishing London Zoo and Whipsnade Park as tourist attractions, writes Peter Denton.
The settlement, of which the grant was only a part, included for the first time a commitment from government that the society's research programme should not be dependent for its core funding on the number of visitors at a tourist attraction. Accordingly a recurring grant of pounds 1.3m per year was secured for the institute.
It was against this background that Cross was elected to the prestigious post of Secretary of the society, a charity founded in 1826 and incorporated by Royal Charter in 1829; he followed in the footsteps of Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell and Solly Zuckerman, while Professor Tony Flint, his protege at Babraham, had a few months previously been appointed Director of Science of the society.
It was as Secretary that Cross had his sternest test, in which he was thrown into the media spotlight, one supposes, reluctantly. The post of secretary is honorary and under the society's constitution carries the responsibility for the day-to-day management of the society's affairs. It is in effect the chief executive post without either the remuneration or the trappings of high office to go with it. Cross had been in post for a little over a year when a combination of falling attendances, chronic under-investment in the zoos over many years, a draining off of zoo profits to help support the society's research programme and a changed public perception of zoos began to show the flaws in the 1988 settlement. The pounds 10m was fast disappearing, being used more and more to prop up the zoos, which were continuing to lose some pounds 2m annually. A series of cost-cutting measures in 1991 failed to redress the balance and with the council of the society anxious to preserve its principal freehold asset, Whipsnade (London Zoo is held on a Crown Lease), and its research programme, the decision was taken in June 1992 to close London Zoo. Cross, although sympathetic to the many letters and protestations received from the general public, recognised that without a serious curtailment of activity or government support London Zoo was a spent force. He therefore supported the closure decision. The fellows thought otherwise. A 'survival' campaign was launched by zoo staff and fellows.
Several extraordinary general meetings of the Fellowship were held in a charged and acrimonious atmosphere. But Cross was held accountable by the fellows for the society's predicament. The Council mounted a public relations campaign and received undertakings from the Government that repair obligations on the zoo buildings would not be enforced if the society vacated the Regent's Park site. However, the pressure from the Fellows was unrelenting. A postal ballot of them in September 1992 sought a vote of confidence in the Council. They did not get it. Some members of the Council could not wait to resign. Others, including Cross, accepted their trustee responsibilities and waited for suitable replacements to be found before leaving, which he did in December 1992. He remained deeply committed to the ideals of the society, being a member of the Awards Committee and a regular attendee at the AGMs and Scientific Meetings.
It was unreasonable to expect an academic, lacking the knowledge or experience of cut and thrust commercial activity, to shoulder the responsibility for resolving singlehandedly the society's problems, which had been apparent to those who had cared to look for the preceeding 15 years or so. It also fell to Cross twice to find a new President for the society on two occasions - Professor Avrion Mitchison in 1989 and Field Marshal Sir John Chapple in 1992 - and a new Treasurer, Peter Holwell, Principal of London University, in 1991.
Such onerous responsibility of an honorary post persuaded Cross in 1991 to obtain the Council's approval to the creation of the post of General Director. David Jones, the society's Director of Zoos, was the obvious choice. But continuing problems at Whipsnade forced his former lieutenant to decant there full time within a matter of weeks. With a lack of in-depth management ability at London, it was found that the overall operational effectiveness of the society was floundering and Jones was seen by many as the scapegoat for the society's ills. The depths to which personal relationships plummeted during the closure crisis in 1992 were vividly captured in Mollie Dineen's BBC TV documentary on London Zoo, The Ark.
But if Cross's media profile perpetuated the 'Old Men at the Zoo' image, it was as a scientist that he himself would wish to be remembered. It was after all to protect what he saw as the ZSL jewel, its research, that he had supported closure of the Zoo. It is perhaps fitting to record that, following a cost-reduction programme, generous donations from wealthy benefactors and a determination to make it work, London Zoo is open, it made a small surplus last year and the emphasis placed on conservation and captive breeding owes much to the pioneering work of Sir Barry Cross.
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