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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 July 2005, 11:58 GMT 12:58 UK
Zoo appeal
By Joe Boyle
BBC News

London Zoo has announced plans to let humans get closer to its animals - without cages getting in the way. But is it the zoos which are changing - or the human visitors?
London Zoo
Zoos want the public to come 'face-to-face' with animals

London Zoo sold its most prized asset, Jumbo the African bull elephant, to an American circus in 1882 after the owners became perturbed by the animal's cantankerous nature. The animal died in a train crash soon after.

The treatment of animals has come a long way since then. Zoos talk more of conservation than of profits. London Zoo has just announced a 5m overhaul of its gorilla enclosure to bring them closer to their natural environment. Other zoos have followed similar paths in recent years.

But will the public continue to pay to see animals in captivity? Or is the zoo a relic of a bygone era?
Picture: Dreamworks
Dreamworks' Madagascar: a hint to human attitudes?

The Dreamworks film Madagascar, in which curious animals in a New York zoo break out for a look round the city but are captured by well-meaning humans who ship them off to Africa, perhaps give a hint of just how far attitudes have changed. (The animals, used to the NY lifestyle, have a struggle adapting to conditions in the non-urban jungle.)

One man with strong views on the subject is Desmond Morris, the social anthropologist who, as curator of mammals at London Zoo from 1959 to 1967, campaigned hard to get rid of caged enclosures.

He believes television has largely killed off the zoo concept. "I think David Attenborough has put an end to zoos because his programmes are so brilliantly made. He just set out to show what animals were like in their own habitats and he succeeded in doing so far better than a zoo ever could."

Single-animal centres

He accepts zoo owners have become aware of the challenges television has brought, and welcomes the move towards more "natural" habitats for the animals. Ironically the disappearance of natural landscapes could be an opportunity for zoos which could, he says, become the only places to see some animals.

Now that people are much more aware of the world generally, they have a bit more affinity with the animals
David Gill
Wildlife park director

Single animal centres, where just rhinos, elephants or lions, are on display could provide the answer. "It's never been tried with the big animals, but I think if you can do it with ducks at a wildfowl centre, surely people would pay to go into an elephant centre, or a rhino centre."

Another alternative to traditional zoos is the conservation-driven wildlife park. David Gill, who set up the South Lakes Wild Animal Park in Cumbria in the mid-1990s, agrees with Mr Morris that television has turned people away from traditional zoos.

"Now that people are much more aware of the world generally, they have a bit more affinity with the animals. They know much more about the animals' natural habitats. Because of this, it is much less acceptable to keep, say, a Sumatran tiger boxed up in a cage," he says.

Although he broadly welcomes the move away from cages towards more natural surroundings, he believes the institutions will have to become much more conservation-orientated. He brands London Zoo's gorilla enclosure an "obscene" waste of money, saying 5m could save Africa's entire gorilla population for the next three decades.

Sense of understanding

But David Field, head of animal care at London Zoo, says money has not been wasted. He said the zoo ploughs around 4m every year into conservation projects, and its staff travel around the world to carry out the work themselves. "Projects like the gorilla enclosure are designed to flagship the work that we are out there doing," he says.

Lion in London Zoo
Could single animal centres be the future zoos?

The purpose of a zoo, he believes, is to present and promote animal welfare, as well as to fund conservation projects. "The public has become more educated and more aware and we are responding to that, but also playing a part in that by saying not just 'this is a gorilla', but also 'this is what you can do to help save gorillas' or 'this is how a gorilla lives'."

He says London Zoo is visited by 90,000 children on formal education tours, helping to create a sense of understanding. "They may have see a giraffe on the television, but when a child comes to the zoo, they just look up, and keep on looking up, and then they realise just how tall the animal is. "

A feeling which TV - or indeed cartoons - could never quite match.

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