A human jungle in Regent's Park: As London Zoo fights to survive, George Cansdale remembers earlier troubled times

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The Independent Online
Next week London Zoo will present its latest survival plan - not for the animals, but for itself. The zoo's problems, financial and otherwise, have been aired most recently and graphically in Molly Dineen's television documentary The Ark. But the troubles which gave rise to the present crisis go much farther back than the past few years.

I first knew the zoo only as a visitor on leave from the Colonial Service, bringing back collections to fill empty cages. But in 1948 I took over as Superintendent, with the specific task of restoring order. My long-serving predecessor, a man of extreme left-wing views, had encouraged the keepers to ignore the curators and overseers, while ill-health meant that for some two years he had inspected the grounds only by car.

I was a few weeks into the job when a call came from the local police. A park policeman had challenged a keeper leaving by a public exit with a carton of lettuces and tomatoes, a costly package in late spring. He claimed this was standard practice. It turned out that nobody was empowered to check any parcels being taken out. There was no way of quantifying loss, but judging by the screams of protest when the leak was stopped, it was a measure that hurt.

Probably no department was completely free from corruption. Two years before, a robbery had emptied the strongroom holding four days' Whitsun takings (perhaps pounds 20,000) - it was widely believed to have been an inside job. There was massive gate fraud and a general feeling that 'if this is their perk, I have every right to mine'. There was usually someone with the experience and spare time to work out some fiddle.

Taking as my motto the old adage that the best dung is on the farmer's foot, I visited the zoological gardens twice every day. I learnt more than was good for me. My master keys gave access everywhere, and in due time the reptile house had its midnight visit. I shall never forget the sight of the crocodile enclosure - it was carpeted with giant tropical cockroaches, solid rafts of them. Treatment of the passages quickly brought the infestation under control. During the exercise one small snake died, possibly due to the insecticidal spray, but the howls of rage seemed rather exaggerated. It turned out that I had exterminated the main source of dissecting material used in biology exams throughout the country.

This was one of many minor 'perks' such as selling manure and allowing favoured members of the public access to areas where they should not be. But these were nothing compared to the theft of entrance money. I was soon alerted to this by noting the standard of living of the gate staff. They all seemed to have the latest household gadgets and could afford to take a cab to Epsom for Derby Day. This sort of abuse went back to pre-war days, when one of the senior men lived at Maidenhead and took a daily taxi from Paddington.

There is no possible way of estimating the losses: my first guess was up to 10 per cent, but that was almost certainly conservative. The system when I arrived was a two-price (adults and children) turnstile set-up: there were four simple ways of cheating and several more sophisticated ones. The men were so adept that the figures always balanced - so exactly that it was suspicious. After careful research, we adopted Automaticket, the system used in cinemas - properly run, it is almost thief-proof. And then the trouble started: strikes, boycotts and daily sabotage, until the men realised they could not win.

It was not only the actual gate staff who had enjoyed illicit benefits: headkeepers were more than happy to give cover at lunchtime, provided that there was no cash check when they took over and handed back. The battle lasted several months and the bitterness made it clear that a great deal of money had been involved. Once the gap was plugged, recorded attendance figures reached levels that have never since been repeated - 2.25 million, 2.5 million, 3 million a year.

The Automaticket system survived six months after my post was declared redundant. After pressure from the staff, the turnstiles returned. The staff gate control was removed the morning I left.

Pilferage reached a new level and keepers became more and more powerful, while their union 'encouraged' the formation of six new posts senior to that of overseer. Senior management had less and less power and spent little time in the zoological gardens.

The fellows' restaurant was often used for outside parties in the evenings, and on one occasion I was due to speak after a dinner. As usual, it was planned to open the aquarium and the reptile house after dinner, but on arrival we were told that industrial action made this impossible. Apparently there was disagreement as to whether the keepers or the electricians should turn on the lights and so get overtime pay.

The quality of the aquarium, once the finest in the UK, had dropped disastrously until it was openly commented on in zoo conferences. A senior official admitted, when challenged, that the aquarium was out of control. All this happened when a new generation of outstanding aquariums was being built elsewhere.

There is no reason to believe that conditions in other parts of the zoo were much different. Certainly relations between senior and junior staff were defective. A headkeeper told a redundancy panel that although he had been on the staff for some years he had never met the director. For one period the curator of the aquarium was also responsible for the insect and reptile houses, as well as the Zoological Society's publications.

One might ask about the part played by the council of the Zoological Society. Most members were high-ranking scientists more at home in academe. They left administrative decisions to the officials and found the commercial side of things somewhat distasteful. A few regarded being on the zoo council as something much to be desired, and were careful not to ask too many awkward questions. Very few were familiar with the zoo and it was said rather cynically that while some six members of council knew where the lion house stood, we were not very sure who was the sixth. In the Seventies efforts were made to bring in able administrators, but none stayed long enough to overcome the entrenched vested interests.

London Zoo entered the post-war period bedevilled by overstaffing, corruption and the absence of a management framework. Apart from a brief period in the early Fifties when we proved what could be done with proper backing, it suffered persistently from these potentially deadly industrial diseases. Here were the roots of today's crisis. Only if they can be eradicated for ever does London Zoo have a future.

The author was Superintendent of the London Zoological Gardens, 1948-53, and a television presenter on animals.

(Photograph omitted)