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London Zoo

Address Outer Circle, Regent’s Park, London
Telephone 020-7722 3333
How to Find it: The nearest underground is Camden Town – from which the zoo is a ten minute walk. Regent’s Park station is further but the walk is more pleasant. Various busses By British Rail – the nearest station is Euston. Take the Underground (Northern Line) from Euston to Camden Town By Bus – No. 274 and C2. By car – Zoo’s car park is on the Outer Circle of Regent’s Park. £5 for Zoo visitors. Pay and display parking also available on the Outer Circle
Open: All year from 10.00 am
Area: 15 Ha 36 Acres
No of Species No of Animals Star Rating
Mammals 89 781 Conservation ** *
Birds 138 690 Enclosures **
Reptiles 101 486 Education ** * *
Amphibians 21 124 Recreation ** *
Fish 177 3312 Research ** * *
Total 526 5393
Click here for a Link to the Zoo’s own Web Pages
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This critique last updated:  Jun 2009

Official Description

London Zoo is a must for for a days out in London experience.


For an amazing animal experience for all the family, visit Animal Adventure, ZSL London Zoo's new £2.3m exhibit.

See what Animal Adventure is all about: http://www.zsl.org/zsl-london-zoo/exhibits/animal-adventure/

Animal Adventure, the new children's zoo, allows children the chance to immerse themselves in the sights, sounds, smells and experiences of life in the animal kingdom

This brand new family attraction lets children climb, tunnel, splash and touch in a special environment that brings fun and learning to life.

Visitors to ZSL London Zoo will be able to see a Room with a Zoo and its inhabitant from Saturday 23rd May until Monday 25th May 2009. From Tuesday 26th May until Sunday 31st May, the public will have the chance to explore the inside of the exhibit and experience for themselves a Room with a Zoo.

More information on Room with a Zoo


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The London Zoo is Britain’s best known zoo, it’s National zoo, and one of the most famous and prestigious collections in the world. It is the primary home of the Zoological Society of London, and it occupies thirty six acres of a Royal Park, less than two miles from the centre of the city of London.

The Zoological Society of London was founded in 1826 at the instigation of its first president, Sir Stamford Raffles (who is rather better known as the founder of Singapore). Raffles obtained the land, and saw the first plans for the zoo, but in the same year that the Zoological Society was founded, he died, reportedly of apoplexy; so he never saw the scientific establishment that he had envisaged, for ‘teaching and elucidating zoology.’ That was left to his successor, the third Marquis of Lansdowne, who obtained a parcel of land from the Crown at Regent’s Park at a nominal rent, and who supervised the building of the first animal houses.

The gardens opened in April 1828 to members of the Zoological Society. The public were not to be admitted for almost two decades, but among the animals they might have seen before the turn of the century were such rarities as Arabian oryx, greater kudus, Indian and Sumatran rhinoceros, aye aye, the now extinct quagga (a species of zebra), and the equally extinct thylacine (a marsupial wolf). Among the zoo’s regular visitors was Charles Darwin, a fellow of the Zoological Society, from 1831. His particular fascination was the orang utan, the first ever seen in Europe.

One of the great popular characters of the nineteenth century was Jumbo, an African bull elephant who came to the zoo as a baby and ended up as a six-ton cantankerous beast. Jumbo was so loved by Londoners of the time that there was a national outcry when the Zoo Council and Abraham Dee Bartlett, the zoo’s superintendent, sold him to Mr Bamum of Bamum and Bailey’s Circus. Jumbo sailed to the United States where hedrew huge crowds until his death in a train accident two years later. London Zoo benefitted from the sale to the tune of two thousand pounds.

One of the first architects at the zoo was Decimus Burton, an ambitious young man already famous for his designs of the Colosseum theatre and Marble Arch in London. Over the generations since, new buildings have come and gone, and today very little of Burton’s original zoo remains. The East Tunnel which links the north and south halves of the zoo under Prince Albert Road dates back to 1829, and the clock tower building, was Burton’s llama house in the 1830s.

For the first sixty-five years, every tropical animal in Regent’s Park was kept indoors in the belief that they would not survive in the cold, fresh air of London. This was to change with the new century when Dr Peter Chalmers Mitchell, who was appointed secretary of the Society in 1902, set about a major reorganisation of the zoo’s buildings. Many of the animals came out into the open, and most of them thrived. This was a revolutionary new idea inspired by Hagenbeck of Hamburg Zoo, and it led to a new era of building and design which has firmly left its mark upon the park. Today there is still a great feeling of history about London Zoo, lending the whole park a special ambiance quite fitting for this, the birthplace of British zoos.

For decades the London Zoo has had no real equal in this country. Other zoos have opened, and flourished, but for generations there have been at least twice as many species here in the heart of London as there have been at any other British zoo. At the beginning of the 1990s there were almost 7,000 animals in the Royal Park. The nearest any other collection came to matching that figure was Chester Zoo with just under 3,500 animals; and despite the fact that 4,000 or so of London Zoo’s animals were fish or invertebrates (and most of those were ants), there was still a superabundance of wildlife that you would see in no other zoo: the wombat for example, or the Tasmanian devil, the long nosed potoroo, the grey ground cuscus, or the four eyed opossum – and these were only the marsupials. Altogether on a day at London Zoo you might have seen representatives of nearly half the mammal species kept in British Zoos. The sheer size of the collection at London was part of the zoo’s appeal, but may also have been the root cause of the zoo’s financial problems. There may never be a collection of this size in Britain again.

There is a recommended route to take you economically around the zoo, but it is worth buying and using the excellent guide book; otherwise you may soon find that the zoo seems much larger than you might expect, and it is difficult not to miss whole sections out. Most tours around London Zoo begin with the primates. The Sobell Pavilions, built for the apes and monkeys in 1972, are right in front of you as you come through the gates. This will also be your first introduction to the signs – another feature of the London Zoo that has no equal. Perhaps it is the influence of the great museums nearby; perhaps it is a spin-off from the education department that. plays host to sixty thousand children every year; or perhaps there is just a greater commitment to educate the public here than at any other zoo. Whatever the reason, Regent’s Park seems to have a policy of putting a sign upon every available blank space, and you could easily spend a day simply reading your way around the zoo. Some zoo directors are sceptical about the value of interpretational signs. They doubt whether the average visitor will ever read more than a fraction of the information that a zoo could display. Maybe there is, a danger of this when every sign is a monotonous litany of gestation times, litter sizes, and diets – and that surely applies to the signs at many zoos; btit not at London. Here imagination has taken over, and nowhere are there two sets of signs the same, even in format. The signwriters have decided that we want to know what is interesting about the occupants of each enclosure, and that is what they have given us. So our tour around the Sobell Pavilions begins with a huge evolutionary tree showing our own relationship to the old and new world monkeys. Then, as we proceed around, each section has a sign that announces its residents: ‘Spider Monkeys – The tail hangers’, reads one; ‘Squirrel Monkeys – sociable and chirpy’, ‘Gorillas – vegetarian gentle giants’, and ‘Macaques – the all-rounders’. The enclosures are all grass floored and well branched with a ceiling of girders to provide more climbing space. They are a little low, but seem well suited to the needs of most of the monkeys, which are kept here in large social groups. Indoors the dens are brick-built and fairly roomy with glass viewing windows. Nearly all the primates breed well here, and you may see several parents carrying young. The chimpanzees (‘Like us – noisy and showy’) spend more time swinging arm to arm than in many zoos which provide less three-dimensional space, but perhaps they would be noisier and showier if they had a little more room to rush around.

The gorillas have the same outside pen and climbing roof as the monkeys; and maybe here the pavilion suffers from a slight uniformity of design – these huge apes looking rather uncomfortable in what is quite clearly a monkey cage. A statue of Guy the gorilla stands alongside, climbed upon by countless children. It is a permanent reminder of the zoo’s best loved resident since Jumbo.

All the apes are identified by photographs and names. Chimp faces vary almost as much as humans, and the photographs remind us that every animal is an individual, each with his, or her, own unique personality.

The aquarium at London Zoo was built in 1924, and it is still the largest in the country. Two hundred thousand gallons of fresh water and sea water circulate through its hundred exhibition tanks. Twice a year sea water from the Bay of Biscay is brought in the ballast tanks of ships to top up the water in circulation. The hall is long, with most of the light coming from the tanks themselves. Perhaps the best feature is the seawater hall where a three thousand gallon display tank holds a whole variety of tropical marine fish and invertebrates.

Next door is the reptile house, with a huge collection of snakes and lizards on display. Many of the signs there feature venom as their point of interest, and one of the many snakes on display is the carpet viper, responsible (so the sign tells us) for several thousand deaths a year in Africa.

Outside again, the elephant and rhino pavilion is good from the visitor’s point of view, but maybe somewhat lacking in space for the animals. To make up for this the elephants are widely exercised out and about in the zoo, to the clear delight of visitors, and one hopes of the elephants too.

One recent resident of this building was Ben, a northern white rhino who was flown in 1986 to join the only other captive rhinos of his race at Dvur Kralove in Czechoslovakia, a move that looks likely to be helpful in saving this subspecies from extinction. The newest residents (at the time of writing) are Rosie, an adorable black rhino who was born at the zoo in 1989, and Jos, a young male black rhino who arrived from Dvur Kralove in November 1990.

The jackass penguins have a famous and fascinating pool, dating back to 1934 and designed by the architect Lubetkin, with a network of concrete ramps and bridges.

So often the children’s corner in a zoo is no more than an afterthought where a few rabbits and a few goats supposedly represent animals with a special appeal to children; but at few zoos will you see children enjoying a children’s zoo so much as at London, where they are offered a whole range of animals to stroke, including calves, piglets, lambs, rabbits and donkeys.

The nineteenth-century reptile house was converted into a tropical bird house in 1927, and it now houses a whole variety of birds in aviaries around the walls. One inhabitant is the bell bird, which makes the loudest of all bird calls, like a hammer striking on an anvil. When the male is in full throat it is quite deafening to stand too close. The essential Victorian flavour of this building is captured in the interpretational signs. For these the zoo has drawn from its archives of nineteenth century drawings, prints and paintings, and has combined them with up to date information in the style of a Victorian naturalist’s notebook.

The cats at Regent’s Park are housed at the East corner of the zoo in well planted enclosures, faced with tent-like erections of steel square fencing. Signs here educate us on the fur trade, teeth and claws, spots, cubs and kittens, and invite us to compare our physical skills with those of the cat family. Did you know, for instance, that a leopard can leap twice as high as an Olympic high jumper?

In the open parkland of the southern side of the zoo are open wildfowl ponds, parrots, sealions and gibbons, carnel rides, and a meet-the animal show under a big open-air tarpaulin.

Two tunnels lead under the road to the north side of the zoo. Here you will find the high, walk-through, Snowdon Aviary, the giraffe, zebras, deer and cattle house where you might also see vicuna, kudu and okapi, the insect house, and finally the one building which most visitors remember more than any other – the Charles Clore Pavilion. Known by keepers simply as ‘The Clore’, this building houses the society’s small mammal collection – one of the most impressive in the world. The ground floor is borne to daylight creatures like marmosets and tamarins; but it is the basement where the real magic lies. Here is the moonlight world’ where large eyed nocturnal creatures like the Tasmanian devil, jerboas, douroucoulis, casiraguas, and fruit bats abound in enclosures that are skilful recreations of their natural wild surroundings. The Clore is a fascinating place indeed, and once your eyes have become used to the dim artificial moonlight you can spend a long time in this mysterious world among the rarely seen creatures of the night.

A new attraction at the zoo in 1991 were a pair of koalas, Mije and Billi, the first seen in Britain for almost 80 years. They were housed in a large but rather stark circular room in what used to be the old orang house, and here they would climb contentedly on a wooden climbing, frame against the painted backdrop of a eucalyptus forest. Sadly Mije died in November 1991. Koalas are notoriously difficult to keep in zoos, primarily because they rely on just a single food source, the leaves of eucalyptus. The original koalas of London, almost a century ago, were fed on eucalyptus cough pastilles, but today the zoo buys regular quantities of fresh branches from a supplier in Cornwall. The branches are inserted into holes in the climbing frame, to make browsing, a more natural process. For many years it has been the policy of successive Australian governments not to allow wildlife exports of any kind, although an exception was made in 1990 for some endangered Leadbetter’s opossums sent to London Zoo. London’s koalas therefore came from San Diego Zoo, where they were born.

Pandas have been a feature of London Zoo for more than five decades. The first London Zoo panda this century was Ming, one of four pandas who arrived in 1938 and who featured in propaganda to boost morale during the war. Twenty years later, in 1958, came Chi-Chi. She was originally destined for an American zoo, but at the time Washington had banned all trade with Communist China. Chi-Chi was branded ‘communist goods’ and was refused entry to the United States. The Zoological Society of London had previously ruled that they would not encourage the collection of wild pandas, in the interests of conservation. But since it was pointed out that Chi-Chi had already been collected, her purchase (with assistance from Granada TV) was approved. She at once became the scene-stealing, star attraction of London Zoo, and remained the best loved zoo animal in Britain until her death. As the only giant panda in the west, she was the inspiration behind Peter Scott’s design for a symbol for the World Wildlife Fund. She was greatly pampered, and often indulged with chocolates by visitors. In the late 1960s her fruitless liaison with Moscow Zoo’s An-An made regular front page news. When she died in July 1972 she was widely mourned, but the vacuum at the zoo was soon filled by Ching-Ching and Chia-Chia who arrived in September 1974, a gift to Edward Heath from the Government of China. Once again, however, all of the technology and best intentions of the zoo failed to persuade the pandas to produce any offspring. Ching-Ching needed almost constant medical attention, and after her death, Chia-Chia departed, in 1988, on a breeding loan to Mexico City Zoo, which has a good record of panda breeding. Once again London Zoo was without a panda, and it felt the absence profoundly. For the first time in decades the zoo had no real star. There was hope that the arrival of the koalas would fill the void, but somehow they failed to do so. So negotiations that had begun with the Chinese in 1988 for the loan of another panda grew more urgent. At about the time that the future of the zoo began to be questioned, the imminent arrival of Ming-Ming was announced. She arrived in the autumn of 1991 and was followed by a male, Bao Bao, from Berlin Zoo. They occupy the original panda cages in the Sobell pavilions. It is not perhaps the most imaginative home for a panda. The panda cages were originally designed for monkeys. But they will offer the zoo the opportunity to create a star once more, if the public still has affection for the very lovable, and still rarely seen, giant panda. And if they do succeed in niating, during the few days in the spring when Ming-Ming will be on heat, then who can guess what effect the arrival of a baby panda might have upon the future and the financial fortunes of London Zoo.

Throughout its history, London Zoo has rarely been out of the news. In 1991 the zoo once again dominated the front pages after reports that the Department of the Environment was to order its closure. ‘Animals face slaughter’ read the headlines, and leader columns were drawn into debating what has become the perennial controversy of the rights and wrongs of zoos as places of entertainment. Not for the first time in its history, London Zoo was faced with the dilemma of hugely mounting costs against a background of fairly stagnant visitor numbers. The reason behind the threat of closure seemed to be the simple failure of the zoo to balance its books. This was never going to be an easy exercise. London Zoo is a zoo of enormous variety and complexity. As well as its huge collection of animals it also houses the Institute of Zoology, a body of around 100 research scientists, funded in part through the Universities Finance Council. Their work currently covers seventy or more projects from the examination of rhino urine, to the insemination of pandas. But to run such a large and diverse zoo has its cost. In this case the cost was the £40 million required to cover the zoo’s backlog of repairs, and to secure its financial future. An early indication that a threat might be looming for London Zoo had come in 1990 when the Zoological Society announced its plans for some major changes in the collection. These were expected to include a huge reduction in the number of species along with the departure of many of the larger animals to Whipsnade. For a while it looked is if these changes could prove to be sufficient to bring running costs down to manageable proportions. But the plans were clearly not enough to stave off a crisis. The fact is that, apart from a government endowment of £10 million made to the zoo in 1988, London Zoo is expected to be self financing, unlike, for example, Kew Gardens or the national museums and galleries. This may have been a realistic attitude in the 1950s and 60s but not, it would seem, in the 1990s.

The zoo survived successions of crises. But survival is still a struggle. Quite simply, there seems to be a straightforward decision to make. If London Zoo is to continue in its present form, as a huge National collection of seven hundred or more species, then more money will have to be found – and essentially this may mean that the taxpayer will have to contribute in some form or another. Other countries, it can be argued, support their prominent collections with money from the National purse. However, for the present at least it would seem that the government lacks any intention to bail the zoo out of its crisis; and the zoo itself seems to be reconciled to the fact that it cannot continue in its present form. But perhaps that might he no bad thing. If public (or private) money is not forthcoming, and if London Zoo could come to terms with redefining the collection into a smaller, simpler, cheaper zoo, then it could surely continue to survive on the gate receipts of the million and a quarter visitors who come every year. After all there are several good zoos that occupy no more land, with far smaller gates, that seem to do quite nicely thank you. Jersey Zoo (with less than a quarter of the number of visitors) is perhaps the best example. It could represent a rather attractive model for a future role for London Zoo. Imagine London becoming associated with the type of international species rescue that Gerald Durrell has shown to be possible. This great and popular zoo would have a platform second to none for capturing the public imagination with the tasks it would undertake. That great reptile house could devote its efforts to the dozens of island reptiles on the edge of extinction. Most of the birds, so many of them non-breeders would go; but perhaps the much criticised (and in need of repair) Snowdon Aviary could house colonies of endangered primates – maybe done langurs or lion tailed maeaques, or drills. The Clore could specialise in half a dozen or so of the most critically endangered bits and small mammals; there would be schemes to link conservation work in the countries of origin with captive breeding at the zoo – plenty here to keep the Institute of Zoology busy well into the next century.

The City of London is full of venues for an exciting day out. There are galleries, museums, waxworks, and the Tower. But consider: a baby Arabian oryx is rarer than a da Vinci painting or a Henry Moore sculpture; and what creation of man can compare with nature’s artistry in the face of a mandrill or the plumage of a flamingo? One word of warning however: don’t plan too full an itinerary on the day you visit the zoo. You may find it takes up much of your day, leaving you too footsore for very much else.


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