Leading Article: Zoo with a mission

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The Independent Online
THE animals of London Zoo have been luckier than some of the miners. They have won a reprieve. There is, after all, no need to close their cages or make them redundant. With promises of reform and revitalisation, the zoo has won itself time to find out if it can adapt to new market conditions without government subsidies.

The new idea promoted by the dissident reformers who have now taken over is that the zoo should emphasise its role in conservation, research and education. The old concept of the zoo as primarily a place of entertainment in which wild animals are kept in cages for the amusement of the public will be phased out. Instead, the zoo will present itself as a centre of serious research dedicated to the better understanding of the animal world and the conservation of endangered species. The public will be invited to observe and support work in progress and to educate itself in the process.

This approach should go part of the way towards meeting the concerns of animal lovers and children who dislike the confinement of wild animals in cages. Defenders of the new policy point out that many species are now endangered not by the natural processes of evolution but by the environmental depredations of mankind and indiscriminate hunting. As forests are destroyed, swamps drained and human habitation extended, animals and plants are being wiped out in growing numbers.

Well-managed zoos can offer them some protection. Far from exploiting nature, the argument goes, zoos are protecting it by breeding endangered species and researching the environments from which they come. If zoos can persuade the public of this, they will not only improve their moral case, especially among critical teenagers, but also attract additional visitors by offering more interesting exhibits.

In pursuit of this aim, London Zoo hopes to make public the work it does behind the scenes and put on stage its keepers, many of whom are world experts. It will also purvey much more information about the animals it is saving. A tiger will not be just a tiger but a rare species awaiting the chance to return to its natural habitat when a national park or some other protected environment has been created. If it can also find a commercial sponsor (a petrol company?) so much the better. If the Government can be persuaded to assist with educational programmes, still better.

This approach has been successful in other zoos, notably Chester, so it has a fair chance of succeeding in London. While zoos can no longer compete as entertainment with other forms of amusement, they may survive as educational and research establishments with entertainment and enjoyment thrown in. Much will depend, however, on whether they can provide their animals with humane conditions that bear some resemblance to a natural habitat. Jungle animals pacing to and fro in concrete cages will continue to offend modern sensibilities whether or not their confinement is presented as being necessary for their survival.