Behaving like animals

…at Bristol Zoo

First, defrost your rabbit. Then you can feed it to the pythons: “You just dangle it in front of them,” says Tim Skelton, head of reptiles at Bristol Zoo Gardens. “On a long stick. They grab hold of it, and you shut the door. With members of the public around, it’s not good having the door open.”

As well as rabbits, the freezer in Skelton’s back office contains dozens of rats and mice. In the fridge he keeps vegetables and a tub of maggots. In the back of a former public toilet, converted at great expense to display turtles, he breeds insects to feed to frogs and chameleons: thousands of crickets chirrup contentedly in open-topped boxes, innocently feeding on wedges of fruit, while their recently hatched offspring, too small to be eaten yet, put on bulk in boxes nearby. And in coffee jars filled with fruit puree and brown bananas, Skelton farms fruit flies.

Of all zoo animals, reptiles may not be the most difficult to keep, but they’re up there. Not just because of their complicated nutritional requirements, but because ventilation, light, temperature and humility need to be kept just so . When converting this small annex – little bigger than an ordinary bedroom – Skelton required 96 electric sockets to power all his fans, steamers and ultraviolet lamps. Keeping on top of it all, clearly, is hard work. “We’re trying to cooperate with the aquarium for cover [during holidays],” he says, “but to write down the instructions would take 20 pages.”

The earliest zoos were less sophisticated. King Solomon collected live animals; as did the wicked Babylonian, Nebuchadnezzar. Cortez, in Mexico, discovered a zoo filled with birds of prey, mammals and reptiles (and 300 keepers). More recently, royal zoos were founded in Vienna and Madrid, and in 1828 the Zoological Society of London established its collection in Regents Park. This placed an emphasis on the advancement of zoological science, and provided a model for many other zoos – of which, today, there are believed to be more than 1,000 worldwide.

Bristol Zoo, just 165 years old, is a relative newcomer. Occupying 12 acres in the heart of the prosperous suburb of Clifton, it boasts roughly 11,500 animals, from across 400 species. Johnny Morris filmed Animal Magic here, and the zoo remains closely connected to Bristol’s large community of natural-history filmmakers. In 2000, it was named Zoo of the Year by CHECK, and it recently lured the director of zoos at the Zoological Society of London, Jo Gipps, to be its new director. (He starts this month.)

In the 1800s, and much of the 1900s, the emphasis of a zoo’s academic work was taxonomy, comparative anatomy and pathology – matters largely beyond the comprehension of the public. Nowadays, zoos place additional stress on education. Last year, more than 24,000 visitors attended Bristol’s conservation education centre, which is currently promoting awareness of the threat to endangered species posed by hunting. In the lobby, visitors are confronted by a shocking display: a gorilla skin, a (replica) gorilla skull, and a photograph showing an ape’s severed head in a metal dish, beside a large bunch of bananas. A member of staff, dressed in straw boater and apron, stands before a butcher’s blackboard, which offers, “Chimp meat: £10/kg.”

To avoid the impression that this issue is all about “bad Africans” hunting apes for food, the centre emphasises the threat to fish stocks around the UK, explains Lynn Hughes, one of the earnest education officers. Visitors are urged to sigh petitions, and to send letters which have already been written for them, in addressed envelopes, to companies she believes can help to prevent the slaughter of apes and the depletion of fish stocks.

Elsewhere in the centre, children might ask about the stuffed polar bear (her name was Nina, she lived at the zoo till she died of liver failure). Or examine items confiscated by Customs and Excise: stuffed birds, pelts and skeletons. (Customs has also confiscated living creatures, some of them hugely valuable, and given them to the zoo.) A lucky few children get to hold a living animal, such as the giant African millipede, a milk snake, or Madagascan hissing cockroaches. When introducing the charmless roaches to children, Hughes always emphasises their usefulness as a source of fertiliser: ”’Cockroach poo’ always makes them laugh,” she confirms.

That’s good, because we do like animals to be entertaining. Conservation programmes are one thing, but zoos are also places where people go for amusement. And they can’t afford to forget that, because most of them depend overwhelmingly on gate receipts for their income.

At Bristol, roughly 55 per cent of turnover comes from ticket sales. (Other money-spinners include a shop, virtually unavoidable on the way out; and conference and wedding facilities.) Last year, nearly half a million people came from as far away as Cornwall and south Wales; 30,000 annual members, mostly locals, visited more than once. In winter you may find no more than five visitors all day, but in August it’s hard to move without knocking over some slack-jawed toddler.

Consequently, the design and architecture of zoos must reconcile the sometimes conflicting needs of the animals, staff and the visiting public. Animals must be kept back, for safety reasons – but not too far back to be enjoyed by the punters.

Individually, the creatures have other needs: lions want scratching posts, monkeys something to climb on, birds airspace. Reptiles may require a strong source of ultra violet light for basking, and a shadier zone for eating, while fish have their tanks heated, or cooled, according to taste.

Visitors too have their requirements, of which the greatest is to be entertained. Thus, nocturnal animals are housed indoors, where artificial light can be used to reverse the day-night cycle. Other exhibits are constructed to start and finish with something sensational. In the aquarium, the first things you see are seahorses; the last lungfish, electric eels and piranha. (“You have to have piranha,” notes the head of the aquarium, Jen Nightingale. “It’s expected.”) A plant exhibit – it’s Bristol Zoo Gardens , remember – kicks off with flytraps and other insectivores, and terminates with a potted Japanese Knotweed, a pest so tenacious that the Ministry of Agriculture requires notification of its presence in the UK. One of the zoo’s more gimmicky features is an area resembling the interior of a typical family house, with interconnected display units, disguised as household fittings, allowing the surprise appearance of various rats, mice and other pests.

Alas, not everything is as such fun. Skelton, in the reptile house, is frequently asked if the crocodile is real. “The fact is,” he says crossly, “reptiles don’t run around playing all day.”

In mid-summer, Skelton gets as many as 2,500 visitors a day through the reptile house – that’s about 50 every minute. This does not fill him with joy. “Every so often,” he says with a sigh, “you get the ‘tortoise on its back’ comment… We’re expected to give up whatever we’re doing and turn them over. They see one on its back and think it will die in about 10 seconds.” At least these people have good intentions. Others are more straightforwardly unappealing. Inside Bristol’s steamy aviary, a toddler asks, “Dad, what’s that?” The father, deliberately misreading a sign and winking lewdly at his wife, replies “It’s a horny bill.” Another group enters and immediately somebody says: “Let’s get out, it’s too hot.” A mother yells: “Stop it, you two!” At the lion’s cage, one young woman says to another: “OK, have you got value for money now ?”

Immeasurably more loathsome, however, were the people who broke into Belfast zoo, in February this year, to beat several King Penguins with bars and rocks, and throw one of them to its death among the lions. It’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again: the real animals, at the zoo, are often the humans.

How can zookeepers put up with this? Why does somebody as idealistic as Lynn Hughes work for an organisation that puts live animals on show? “Well, if you put our lions back in the wild,” she says coolly, “they wouldn’t survive.” Her colleagues say much the same, though each one supplies the name of a different species before trotting out a line about zoos resembling Noah’s Ark. For some animals, there’s no wilderness left; for others, born and raised in zoos, the change of scene would be intolerable.

In captivity, animals can change a great deal from their wild state. Some poisonous frogs, for instance, lose toxicity because they no longer feed on the types of insects that provided that lethal characteristic. Fruitbats (a bit like cats, but with wings like folded umbrellas) are usually unwilling to fly in cages, preferring to scuttle upside-down along ropes: this relative lack of exercise can cause weight problems, but keepers can remedy that by modifying their diets. Similarly, captive animals lacking sufficient impetus to mate with each other can sometimes be encouraged to get busy. Sticking another male with an established pair can do wonders for an animal’s va-va-voom. (A remedy not available to Noah.)

Breeding in captivity, which eliminates the costly and dangerous process of capturing wild animals, is complicated in ways that may not immediately be apparent. Some animals won’t produce offspring at all, no matter how many supplementary males (or females) you throw at them. Others, equally troublesome, produce too many offspring. A reptile might produce 30 each year, for ten years. “The problem is getting rid of them,” says Skelton. “I have to give them to an acceptable zoo, or to someone known to me, who won’t harm our reputation, won’t go round saying, ‘Look what I got from Bristol Zoo!’” Still other creatures produce offspring of the wrong kind. After two supposedly “male” Bali Starlings produced eggs, Bristol Zoo’s Duncan Bolton decided to separate them: as siblings, they could not muster the requisite genetic variety. To catch one and remove it from the aviary took him eight months.

Largely because of conservation work, zoos – unlike other organisations in the entertainment business – do not tend to compete with each other. Effective breeding programmes, for instance, require offspring to exhibit genetic variety – they can’t all come from the same parents – so zoos pair their animals with others held elsewhere. And to offset the risk of disease wiping out entire species at once, zoologists have historically taken care to spread captive stocks across several institutions.

Another example of zoos’ collaborative work concerns research on wild animals. After penguins were tagged in waters around southern Africa – yup, there are penguins in Africa – it turned out that the tags substantially increased the drag on their underwater dynamic. This affected their ability to find food – and potentially damaged their chances of survival. The solution? Bristol Zoo worked with a physics lecturer at Bristol University to design a more streamlined tag.

Even day-to-day work produces results that can benefit zoologists – and animals – worldwide. Bristol’s vet, Sharon Redrobe, carries out post mortems and holds twice-weekly clinics for sick animals. This week, among other matters, she tackled the prolapsed rectum of a young sand cat, and knocked out an okapi so she could file down its hooves. That’s routine, but sometimes Redrobe, who also serves as a lecturer at Bristol University, encounters something special, worth writing up for the journals – such as a recent case of a hydrosaurus with a fungal infection in its mouth.

Zoos have been criticised, over recent years, as being cruel to animals. But it’s not zoos that are the problem: it’s bad zoos. Because whatever you may care to say about the brutality of humankind – and there’s certainly a lot to say – we are the only species in the history of the life on the planet knowingly to have preserved the existence of its predators. If it weren’t for zoologists and conservationists, the tiger – to name just one endangered species – might have died out long ago. (It still might.)

Sentimentalists suggest that if animals can’t survive in the wild they should be allowed to fall extinct, rather than suffer in captivity. But not all captive animals suffer, and anyway conditions can be improved – as Bristol has shown with its new, combined seal and penguin section. In CHECK WHEN, the seals and penguins were taken from the motionless, chemically treated pool where they lived previously and installed in a complex with moving salt water, seemingly alongside each other (in fact, they’ve been craftily separated, lest the seals eat the penguins). Visitors can watch from above water level and also from below, through clear walkways. The animals are verifiably happier than before: whereas the seals used to lounge on land, says Bolton, they spend a lot more time in the water now, and Redrobe reports that they no longer suffer from sore eyes to the extent they did in chlorinated water. The cost of construction was £2m, of which roughly a quarter went on the complex filtration system, which Bolton shows off with evident pride, gesturing at the heavy machinery with hands full of the litter he collects wherever he goes.

Even in the wild, Bolton observes, animals do not usually roam free: they’re surrounded by rivals with strong territorial instincts. But the more progressive zoos have moved away from keeping big mammals, and Bristol is no exception. Among the old favourites no longer to be found there are bears, camels, giraffes, orang utan, rhino, and zebras. The reason, obviously, is lack of space: by modern standards, they can’t be housed suitably in the middle of Clifton. But Bristol Zoo has more land outside town, by junction 17 on the M5, opposite the shopping area at Cribbs Causeway: at 136 acres, there’s enough space for oodles of large mammals.

Pending the arrival of the new director, who may have his own plans, staff prefer not to talk about the new development in detail. But it’s clear they look forward to the new opportunity to show off their animals. As Bolton sees it, naturalists such as David Attenborough and Bill Oddie were first inspired to pursue an interest in animals as children – on visits to places like Bristol Zoo Gardens. “Seeing an elephant close up, and seeing a penguin as it walks along” – Bolton shuffles forward a few paces, hands flapping by his thighs – “and smelling animals, is hugely important. If just one per cent of the youngsters who come through are inspired by that, that’s tremendous.”

2432 words. First published 1 September 01. © FT Magazine