Posts Tagged 'animals'

London Zoo


This review is a very long time coming given how many times I have visited this place over the years. In addition to many childhood trips, I worked as a volunteer keeper here at weekends for several years and as a result know the place fairly intimately. The lack of a review was largely down to not having any accessible photos during most of my blogging past, but a visit in April this year took care of that. In many ways it makes this summary all the more appropriate since a huge amount has changed in the last few years. Although London has always undergone upgrades and renovations, some of the most recent alterations have rather starkly changed the face of the zoo and the difference say between now and ten years ago is a world away to say the different between 1984 and 2004.


London historically has some major issues when it comes to these kinds of changes which makes the transformation all the more remarkable. Situated in Regent’s Park, it doesn’t actually own the land it is on and instead effectively enjoys rent-free tenancy from the crown, but it also means they can’t expand with public rights of way across the zoo, and the presence of both a road and canal through it, limit the footprint further and the locations of possible new builds or rebuilds. Many of the buildings are also old and creaking, making the costs of maintenance and upgrades very expensive, while prices in London for building work are obviously much greater than in many places. On top of that many of the buildings are historically important and have listed status, which means even minor changes, let alone major alterations or replacing the building, are often impossible. Put that all together with the funding crisis the zoo suffered for many years (staff were made redundant, buildings closed, animals moved on) and it’s incredible that not only are they still afloat, but have in fact been rejuvenated.

392065_n Some of the repurposing has been very intelligently done. Much of the Charles Clore Pavilion (effectively the small mammal house and nocturnal section) has been knocked together to form a single, large walk-through South American enclosure with birds, armadillos, sloths, tamandua, marmosets and others wandering freely, while the basement still houses the nocturnal animals, and the perimeter contains a series of other small critters like squirrels and tree shrews. It has totally changed the scope and style of the building, but without huge changes to the structure that would be costly, and allowing the fundamental purpose (small mammals) to remain the same (keeping staff and facilities in situ too).


This is still very much a city zoo, meaning it is generally small but packs a lot in. One major improvement (if originally most a money-saving effort) was the removal of most of the larger animals and the zoo no longer has the rhinos and elephants of before, while things like big cats and apes are fewer in number and have much larger enclosures. Even so, ‘traditional’ species like giraffe, (Asiatic) lions, gorilla and vultures are still in residence, but the focus has turned to smaller animals in many cases when it comes to things like large mammals and birds, though the presence of Komodo dragons, tigers, hunting dogs, okapi and llama hardly means that it is all ‘tiny’ species though these are in abundance.


For a long time it boasted the most diverse (in terms of species) collection in the UK, if not Europe, and while I don’t know if this is still the case, it must certainly come close. This is assisted by the presence of the Clore, insect house (the Millennium building), aquarium, reptile house and an aviary for small birds, and so there is a huge amount of species covered between these. While here too there are plenty of ‘traditional’ species that the public will hoover up, even to the jaded zoo go-er like me, seeing things like Congo pygmy goose, Philippines crocodile and frogmouths were all new and great to see. 198019857637_o

One can also get much closer to many animals than in many places. In addition to the Clore, the children’s zoo, two small aviaries, the giant Snowden aviary and butterfly house all had walk-through sections while new viewing platforms for the giraffe and well designed new set-ups for the tiger and gorillas give much better access (while still giving the animals privacy) than before. So although much of the zoo is still original in many ways (there are no shortage of bricks, concrete and historic buildings), and preserves its feel and tradition, it is no longer the stark and unfriendly place as it was so often portrayed in the bad old days.


While certainly I do have a bias in all of this with my connections to the zoo, it is hard not to consider it still one of the premier collections in the world. It is a modern flourishing zoo, and given that it has maintained its position as one of the top zoos for research and conservation work (it was originally founded as part of the Zoological Society which sits in the grounds) while reworking the grounds and facilities, and housing a vast collection of important species, it is hard to find any real flaw in the place these days. No matter your interest in zoos – interesting species, common species, research, education, conservation, history and design there is something important and compelling here. Sure there are things to improve and change, but one can say that of any zoo, however good it is, but if you are a zoo aficionado, London really is one of the places to visit.




The live fauna of Dinosaur Provincial Park

In addition to the actual fossils, I do have a decent record of seeing live animals while out in the field, and the DPP and environs of the Tyrrell were no exception. The dinosaurs are of course, awesome, but it’s nice to see some wildlife too. Mark Graham had mentioned in his guest post that I’d been snapping some of the fauna, so now seemed a good time to bring them out

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First off is the easy one, these ground squirrels infest the area around the Tyrrell and this guy was literally sat on the front steps begging for food. While I didn’t give him any, the pot belly on this one and those that were hanging around make it quite obvious that plenty of people do, though just a few yards away other locals were much more shy and sveldt.

Just traces here, but quite cool that you have coyote and deer (presumably mule deer given their abundance) going in opposite directions, though of course who knows how far apart in time. The canid also has some nice overprinting going on such that the two feet have left what appears to be one large, but rather odd, footprint.

And here’s a pronghorn. A male rather obviously, and something I’d long wanted to see. I didn’t realise their range was this far north, so were a complete surprise to me when we came across a small group and I’ve got some nice photos of them mooching around.


And here are some of those mule deer. This was part of a herd of a dozen or so, though there were plenty of odd ones or pairs seen from time to time in various places both around the museum and out into the wilds. I did see white-tailed deer too, but didn’t get any great photos.


A real prize for me, a nice big bunny. I assume this is a jackrabbit, but I don’t actually know. I really like rabbits in general and have seen desert hares a couple of times in the wilds of China, but they tend to explode out of cover and vanish over the horizon before I realise I’ve spooked one, whereas this one was kind enough to move not too fast and stop a couple of times allowing me to get decent snaps (though out of tons that are out of focus or suffering from motion blur).

IMG_2807And finally a chipmunk, one of many hanging around in the woods near Don Henderson’s house, though I was also surprised to see them out in boulder fields too. I saw traces of activity from beavers and porcupines on several trees (and a couple of roadkill of the latter) but sadly no live ones were around. I think pretty much all of these bar the chipmunk were new to me, not just in the wild, but in zoos too. Perhaps as they are considered too ‘boring’ or ‘normal’ for most collections, and if the US doesn’t bother, then they’re not too likely to end up in Europe or Asia either, so this was really a pretty good haul by my standards.


Orange & white

Every now and then I’ve sneaked a little commentary on colour into my posts and it’s time for another one. This time it’s on the delightful orange with white trim pattern that seem to turn up on occasion. While there are plenty of orange-red animals out there (tigers, orangs, maned wolves, foxes, coati) and at least a few of them with white parts, the ones I’ve been thinking about are the red river hog, congo buffalo and bongo. All three are fairly large herbivores (OK the hog less so, but it’s not a small animal) and all live in fairly dense forested environments in the Congo area. All three are predominantly orange with white ear tips and white ‘trim’ (white stripes for the bongo and hog, white tails for the hog and buffalo) and for the record all three have rather dark lower legs.

Some colour combinations or patterns are pretty obvious and have a clear function. Dappled coats are common in forests where they match the light pattern through the leaves. Desert animals tend to be pale and sandy colours, those in grasses tend to have stripes and so on. What I find interesting here is that you do have a set of species with relatively similar habits living in a similar environment and they have all convergently struck on a very similar coat pattern.

White ear tassels and tails are often considered signalling structures which makes sense in a dark environment. But why orange and the dark legs? It seems too much of a coincidence (but of course still could be) that they all share this coat colour pattern given the shared behaviour and environment, but I can’t think what it might be. I’ve had a chat to a few colleagues and no one seems to have any concrete ideas but it’s something that’s been buzzing in my brain for a while and features several of my favourite animals, so it’s a good excuse to put these up and muse a little on colour patterns.

Why zoos are good

Many years ago I ended up doing a radio debate on national radio over zoos. I’m still not sure if it was a mistake. I had a couple of opportunities to kill my opponent dead but my inexperience and nerves got the better of me. By all accounts (both neutral and partisan) I did rather well, and my failing was that I had rather expected my opponent to respond to reason, logic and data. It was not to be.

Still, the core issues have stayed with me and given my general love of good zoos (note the adjective) I’ve long thought of writing something more formal about why zoos are good. Here is that attempt.

Now first off I am perfectly willing to recognise that there are bad zoos and bad zoo exhibits. Not all animals are kept perfectly, much as I wish it were otherwise and even in the best, there might still be room for improvement. However, that some politicians and police are corrupt does not mean we should have government officials or that a group to enforce the law is a bad idea. It merely means we need to pay more attention to the bad and improve them or close them. In either case, zoos are generally a poor target – they have to keep the public onside or go bust. They have to stand up to rigorous inspections or be closed down. While a bad collection should not be ignored, if you are worried the care and treatment of animals I can point to a great many farms, breeders, dealers and private owners who are in far greater need or inspection, improvement or both.

If you are against animals in captivity full stop then there is perhaps little scope for disagreement. But even so I’d maintain that some of the below arguments (not least the threat of extinction) can outweigh any argument against captivity. Moreover, I don’t think anyone would consider putting down a 10000 km long fence around the Masai Mara to really be captivity, even if it restricts the movement of animals across that barrier. But at what point does that become captivity? A 10000 m fence? 1000 m fence? What if veterinary care is provided? Or extra food? Or the animal is left alone, but has a tracking collar attached? I’m not pretending that an animal in a zoo is not in captivity, but clearly there is a continuum from zoos and wildlife parks, to game reserves, national parks and protected areas. Degree of care and degree of enclosure make the idea of ‘captivity’ fluid and not absolute.

What I would state with absolute confidence is that for many (but no, not all) species, it is perfectly possible to keep them in a zoo or wildlife park and for them to have a quality of life as high or higher than in the wild. Their movement might be restricted (but not necessarily by that much) but they will not suffer from the threat or stress of predators (and nor will they be killed in a grisly manner or eaten alive) or the irritation and pain of parasites, injuries and illnesses will be treated, they won’t suffer or die of drought or starvation and indeed will get a varied and high-quality diet with all the supplements required. They can be spared bullying or social ostracism or even infanticide by others of their kind, or a lack of a suitable home or environment in which to live. A lot of very nasty things happen to truly ‘wild’ animals that simply don’t happen in good zoos.

So a good zoo will provide great care and protection to animals in captivity. These are good things for the individuals concerned. But what do zoos actually bring to the table for the visitors and the wider world? This is, naturally, what I want to focus on, but it is I hope worth having dealt with the more obvious objections and misapprehensions.

Education. Many children and adults, especially those in cities will never see a wild animal beyond a fox or pigeon, let alone a lion or giraffe. Sure documentaries get ever more detailed and impressive, and lots of things are on display in museums, but that really does pale next to seeing a living creature in the flesh, hearing it, smelling it, watching what it does and having the time to absorb details. That will bring a greater understanding and perspective to many and hopefully give them a greater appreciation for wildlife, conservation efforts and how they can contribute. That’s before the actual direct education that can take place through signs, talks and the like that can directly communicate information about the animals they are seeing and their place in the world.

Conservation – reservoir and return. It’s not an exaggeration that colossal numbers of species are going extinct across the world, and many more are threatened. Moreover, some of these collapses have been sudden, dramatic and unexpected or were simply discovered very late in the day. Zoos protect against a species going extinct. A species protected in captivity provides a reservoir population against a crash or extinction. Here they are relatively safe and can be bred up to provide foundation populations. A good number of species only exist in captivity and still more only exist in the wild because they have been reintroduced from zoos, or the wild populations have been boosted by captive bred animals. Quite simply without these efforts there would be fewer species alive today and ecosystems and the world as a whole would be poorer for it.

Research. If we are to save many wild species and restore and repair ecosystems we need to know about how key species live, act and react. Being able to study animals in zoos where there is less risk and less variables means real changes can be effected on wild populations with far fewer problems. Knowing say the oestreus cycle of an animal or their breeding rate, or that they don’t seem to like a crop that’s about to be planted can make a real difference to conservation efforts and to reduce human-animal conflicts.

All in all with the ongoing global threats to the environment it’s hard for me to see zoos as anything other than being essential to the long-term survival of numerous species. Not just in terms of protecting them and breeding them for reintroduction, but to learn about them to aid those still in the wild, as well as to educate and inform the public about these animals and to pique their interest so that they can assist or at least accept the need to be more environmentally conscious. Sure there is always scope for improvement, but these benefits are critical to many species and potentially at least, the world as a whole, and the animals so well kept and content, that I think there can be few serious objections to the concept of zoos as a whole and what they can do. Without them, the world would be and would increasingly be, a poorer place.

Marwell Zoo

And so to Marwell. This is probably the zoo in the UK I have been to most apart from the venerable London and despite having been since I started the Musings, it’s yet to have a write up. Fortunately this time I’ve got more interesting photos of animals than perhaps any other previous trip so I’m going to be able to get the most out of it. Moreover, this was a trip with Darren Naish, Heinrich Mallison and Sebastian Marpmann which gave great opportunity to discuss what we were seeing. It also meant Darren and i tried to explain what the place was like to the others on the drive down and in doing so gave me a new appreciation of the collections.

I’d always thought of Marwell as being ‘ungulate heavy’ – if you like your bovids and equids etc. it was the place to go, but on reflection, it really is dominated by these and is quite unlike any safari park or zoo I can think of – even other big and open parks like Chester and Longleat. Set in the South Downs, the zoo (and it is huge) is in the gentle rolling hills and grasslands which are a great setting. Pockets of woodland provide areas of cover for things like anoa and peccary while the open spaces are ideal for zebra and antelope. And these animals are massively in the majority. While there is for example a good cat collection (ocelot, serval, leopard, cheetah, tiger and snow leopard, and theoretically at least, sandcats) and a few primates, there’s tons of ungulates. Giraffe, all three zebras, roan antelope, waterbuck, scimitar horned oryx, Przewlaski’s horse, okiapi, bongo, pygmy hippo, Brazilian tapir, white rhino, nyala, sititunga, Somali wild ass, warthog, addax, Dama and dorcas gazelle, peccary, anoa, kudu, Congo buffalo and best of all, a pair of white tailed gnu.

What’s more these aren’t just present, but they are there in big numbers. There were 9 giraffe, and at least a dozen each of the waterbuck and oryx. Others were in big numbers too with a dozen ostrich and more than 20 capybara.The enclosures are typically huge since they have the space (and my one complaint would be they are too big in places, or at least accessible only from limited places so you can be a *very* long away from the animals). That space does mean they have a lot of room and several mixed exhibits – the largest of which is a new African space that must be 20 acres as a single field with giraffe, Grevy’s, waterbuck and ostrich 30 or 40 animals all sharing the space. This gives the animals a bit more scope that some other places and we saw trotting zebras, galloping giraffe and sprinting ostrich which was great.

We were also lucky enough to see lots of less common behaviours. Giraffe grazing, Congo buffalow calling, a pair of zebras really fighting, roan antelope engaged in ritual sparring, and a tiger eating grass.

Marwell doesn’t really go in for the ‘traditional’ collections. Big cats and giraffe aside, there’s few classics – no elephants, only the white rhino, no lions, no sealions, no great apes, no jaguar, no aquarium, the reptile house such as it is, is tiny with only a few species, there’s some owls but no other birds of prey and there are few birds in general. Though there are still a few ‘inevitables’ (Asian short-clawed otters, Sulawesi macaques, meerkats) there are some great things tucked away too – fossa, the stunningly rare Alotran lemur, giant anteater, weaver birds, bat-eared foxes and the like.

Collectively then this is an unusual zoo. No real reptile collection, no fish bar some cichlids, few birds, few ‘classic’ species. But what it has in spades and with both jokers is a superb layout, innovative use of space and the existing environment, some real rarities, and lots and lots of animals clearly enjoying where they are. It is, i short, a great zoo. You might not get what you expect if you’re a regular zoo go-er, but you will have a very good day.

With nasty big pointy teeth….

Modern birds do not have teeth. So much so simple, but that doesn’t mean that their beaks need be simply shears or forceps. The keratinious beak can be quite complex in shape and a good number of birds have serrations along the margins that increase their cutting abilities or grip. I’ve been bitten by a penguin and they have brutally serrated beaks that I can assure you slice open human hands most effectively. Pictured (courtesy of the Optimistic Painter himself) is an emu and while it is small, the lower right part of the jaw is well framed against the light background and the small serrations are clearly visible. Another little reminder that bones (sadly) can’t tell us everything about important details of the shape of he living animal and that the real appearance could in cases be quite different to what we expect.


This photo was sent to me by an old friend who found it among her son’s collection of plastic dinosaurs. She asked me what kind of dinosaur had a head like a kangeroo on a theropod-like body. My answer was ‘none’ and then the picture turned up. I can see why she was confused!

I’m no stranger to dodgy dinosaur toys but this really is a marvel. Taking the head alone it’s hard not to consider it mammalian – the shape of the muzzle, position of the nostrils, the apparent jaw muscles and of course the ears all mark it out as more mammal than reptile. However the body does look dinosaurian, the sculpting of the surface hardly looks like fur, the tail would still be too fat for a kangeroo and certainly for any other mammal, and the feet especially are tridactyl and with big claws. In short it’s hard to consider this anything other than a dinosaur-mammal chimera. Wow. Cheaply made and badly sculpted toys are one thing, but you really wonder quite what they were looking at / taking when this was made.

My thanks to Kath for this unique ‘treasure’, for those interested, her blog is here.

Pittsburgh Zoo

This was my first ever trip to an American zoo and I have to say I was impressed. OK, so I’d expect nothing less, but this was nevertheless an excellent day out. The layout was great, the species interesting, and as usual even for a real zoo-phile for me, there were some unique treats.

Just to get the slight bad out of the way first, a couple of turkeys, flamingos, penguins and an ostrich aside there were literally no birds at all in the zoo. I assume the presence of the aviary has a lot to do with it, but it was still a little jarring that there was nothing at all. I wouldn’t call it a negative as such, but it does rather under represent a pretty major group of vertebrates to say the least, and I can’t see how couple of enclosures would really kill them or impact on traffic to the aviary. My other very minor gripe would be (ironically) the lack of local species, or more rather there were setups for porcupine, skunk and American beaver but none of them were on show, which for me was a shame as these are things I’ve not seen before, dull as they may be to most visitors. Such is life and it’s not the major issue, but it piqued me at the time.

So onto the good, and there is so much good. The enclosures were generous and well-planned, there were some great mixed exhibits, and the layout was clever. You revisit most of the enclosures at some point, doubling back and coming across rhino or lions again from a different angle and gaining a new vantage point and an opportunity to see something missed before, and some of the environments were well stacked Hagenback style to increase the look of the thing. ‘Difficult’ animals like polar bear, African elephant and gorillas were all doing well and showing natural behaviours. In the case of the elephants, the bull was clearly unhappy about something and was giving a full on rumble – something I’d not even seen in Kenya. There’s real power in there, would could feel the room vibrate which was no mean feat given the volume of concrete involved. As for the gorillas, something unique: a pair of silverbacks. Apparently the two are twins and get on fine with each other, so the colony has a pair of dominant males.

Onto the superb and brand new aquarium. This has a strong conservation focus with an admirable record for breeding seahorses and keeps numerous corals which is no easy task. There was a colossal marine tank full of the usual sharks and reef fish, a lovely Amazon setup full of the big and bold, a nice penguin tank, a great collection of large rays and best of all (if sadly unphotographable) a pacific giant octopus nursing thousands of her eggs.

Most memorable though was the outside aquarium for sand tiger sharks. A massive enclosure with viewing ports at various levels and a walk through tunnel too, this was simply bare walls and lit by the overhead sun. The effect however, was magical. Huge animals cruising incredibly slowly and gently around the tank, barely moving their tails or fins it was silent and beautiful, not just the sharks themselves, but their shadows too and those against the stark blue walls with the ripples of light from above was worth watching in its own right.

Finally there was an exhibition centre, objectively to bring the animals closer to the public, though in reality not much more than a combined reptile and small-mammal house with numerous snakes, lizards some bats and the like. And finally a new mammal – an American possum, if looking a bit rough around the edges. All in all a great day, a great zoo and great fun.

Bristol Zoo

P1000875The zoo in Bristol has gone through a number of names in its distinguished history (first opening in 1836) and is currently the ‘Bristol Zoo Gardens’ though for a long time it was the last surviving ‘zoological and botanical gardens’ in the UK, and quite possibly the world. In fact thanks to its age it has a long-standing minor disagreement over its position as the ‘oldest’ modern zoo since while London Zoo first opened its doors in 1828 it was not until 1847 that it opened them to the general public and not just the member of the Royal Zoological Society and thus either predates Bristol by 8 years, or is 11 years younger.

P1000884In any case, both are important historical collections that have survived and even thrived in the modern era. Bristol Zoo is small and self contained close to the city centre but nevertheless manages to cram in a great deal and uses the limited space very well. Like London, they have moved away from large animals (elephants, rhino, giraffe etc.) so that despite the small size of the zoo, the enclosures themselves are roomy. Despite its age Bristol is one of the most modern zoos in Europe with almost every major building being either new or recently renovated and the collections as a result are very nice. Continue reading ‘Bristol Zoo’

Beijing Zoo Too


I do actually now have a *lot* of photos of the Beijing zoo, so given that I’m unlikely to find a useful forum for many outside the zoo review I though I should just stick them up here while it’s vaguely relevant. Photos again by myself and Roger Close.

Continue reading ‘Beijing Zoo Too’

Beijing Zoo

metalGiven the raft of zoo reviews on here of late it’s remiss of me not to have covered the Beijing zoo since not only is it actually quite good, but I have been probably half a dozen times in the last year and it’s opposite the IVPP. One partial reason was a lack of good photos (although a few have turned up on here from time to time such as bustards, vultures and partridge) and I have Mesozoic bird expert Roger Close to thank for some of the photos below (the rest are mine, but as ever please ask before using them). Right, onto the review.

Continue reading ‘Beijing Zoo’

Seoul Grand Park Zoo

IMGP4018One of the benefits of my recent trip to Korea was an opportunity to visit the Grand Park zoo in Seoul. This is (supposedly) one of the biggest in the world and I can believe it, in 5 hours I barely stopped far 15 minutes for lunch and still did not quite see everything and they were building several new and large enclosures while I was there. It is, in short massive. These reviews of zoos and museums can get a bit same-y since most places have much the same animals / exhibits presented in similar ways, so I’ll keep this short and let the photos take over.

Continue reading ‘Seoul Grand Park Zoo’

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