Zoo trapped on the horns of a financial dilemma: Chris Mowbray looks at a tourist attraction in decline that is too expensive to keep open, but too precious to close

A ZOO in the West Midlands has become too expensive to keep open - but also too expensive to close because of a bizarre combination of factors involving public spending cuts and the laws that protect historic buildings.

Dudley Zoo in the Black Country was once the biggest outdoor leisure attraction in the Midlands. It has received more than 21 million visitors since it opened as a private venture in 1937 and annual attendances have exceeded 700,000.

However, visitor figures declined throughout the 1980s in the face of new tourist competition and the animal rights lobby, reaching an all- time low of 160,000 last year.

Dudley Borough Council, which has carried out nearly pounds 6m of improvements since assuming total ownership in 1988, is finding it difficult to justify continuing its support when the Government is demanding local authority economies.

But, simply closing the zoo is impractical because the council would still be saddled with legal responsibility for maintaining the 43-acre site at an annual cost of pounds 250,000.

However, Dudley boasts the only zoo in Britain which also has a ruined castle, an iron-age fort and a hill, and it could well be this uniqueness that saves it. The 13th-century castle - which was destroyed by fire in 1750 - and the ancient fort are listed under the protection of English Heritage.

Even some of the zoo's original concrete Tecton buildings and animal houses are subject to preservation orders as examples of typical 1930s architecture.

The council, confronted with a problem that will not simply go away with the animals, has appointed a business consultant as the new director, and given him six months in which to produce a rescue package.

Peter Suddock, 46, has nearly 30 years' business experience in various branches of the engineering industry. A native of the nearby town of Bromsgrove, in Hereford and Worcester, he fondly recalls his first visit to the zoo at the age of five. 'Everyone in the West Midlands knows Dudley Zoo because it was once the place to go for a day trip and I want to make it as popular again,' he said. 'I was invited to take this job as a challenge, and, although I have never run a zoo before, it is just like any other business - it is all about making use of the resources that you have.'

Those resources include 1,000 creatures varying from insects to giraffes, African elephants and one of Britain's oldest gorillas, a 34-year- old called Bonzo.

The site also has a ready-made potential as a theme attraction. The hill underneath Dudley castle is riddled with caverns hollowed out by the earls of Dudley, who made fortunes using the limestone for iron and steel production during the Industrial Revolution.

Another possible solution is Dudley's participation in a scheme to link tourist attractions throughout the Midlands with a steam train service.

As Mr Suddock searches for the right answers, he has been intrigued by one particular statistic - a large decrease in visitors with an Asian background since Dudley stopped keeping tigers.

He also eyes, enviously, the 25 million people who travel from all over the country each year to patronise the nearby Merry Hill shopping complex. 'It would be marvellous if we could persuade just a few of those people to visit the zoo as well - though we could not cope with them all,' he said.

'I think zoos have a future because they are at the forefront of conservation. They also enable people, who will never visit Africa or India, to see how wonderful these animals are in the flesh, and this will increase support for attempts to preserve their threatened natural habitats abroad.'

(Photograph omitted)