Some traditions are very old and die very hard, and one of them is the menagerie.
The pharaohs of ancient Egypt kept animal collections for display. In Hellenistic times, Ptolemy II developed the Alexandria zoo into the greatest collection of beasts the world had known. In the Middle Ages, Henry I used the Tower of London for a Royal Menagerie, holding (at various times) lions, leopards, rhinos, the first African elephant seen in Britain since the Romans, and a polar bear exercised in the Thames on the end of a long lead. That lasted until 1826, when the Royal Menagerie of the Tower was transferred to Regent's Park, to be the nucleus of the collection of the new Zoological Society of London – or what we now know as London Zoo.
Menageries began with the desire of great and powerful men to display dominance over great and powerful animals, and they have continued into the democratic present because of another powerful emotion: the residual awe and fascination in all of us in the presence of wild beasts. But their time is done. There is no real, adequate reason, in an age when the welfare of animals is sympathetically understood more than ever before, to confine large sentient creatures for years in spaces which are the tiniest fraction of what they would freely roam across in the wild. And the call from the RSPCA which we report today, to phase out the keeping of elephants in British zoos, will sooner or later have to be heeded.
London Zoo itself began to understand this nearly a decade ago, when it ceased keeping elephants in Regent's Park in the Hugh Casson-designed Elephant House, which was a prize-winning, listed piece of concrete modernism, but useless if you were an elephant. The zoo shipped its last three elephants to the wide green spaces of Whipsnade in the Chilterns, where their conditions were infinitely better. But admirable though Whipsnade is, the Serengeti it is not. Farewell, menageries: the place for the noble pachyderm is the wild.