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.
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.
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.