London Zoo, a Brief HistoryKeith
A brief history of the early years
The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) was established by Sir Stamford Raffles and Sir Humphry Davy in 1826, who obtained the land for the zoo and saw the plans before Raffles died of apoplexy (what would now be called a stroke) later that year on 5 July – his birthday. After his death the third Marquis of Lansdowne took over the project and supervised the building of the first animal houses. The zoo opened in April 1828 to fellows of the Society, providing access to species such as Arabian oryx, greater kudus, orangutan and the now extinct quagga and thylacine. The Society was granted a Royal Charter in 1829 by King George IV, and in 1847 the zoo opened to the public to aid funding.
It was thought that tropical animals could not survive in London’s outdoor cold weather resulting in all being kept indoors until 1902, when Dr Peter Chalmers Mitchell was appointed secretary of the Society.He started a major reorganisation of the buildings and enclosures, bringing many of the animals out into the open, where some thrived. This was an idea inspired by Hamburg Zoo, and led to newer designs to many of the buildings. Mitchell also envisaged a new 600-acre park to the north of London, and in 1926 Hall Farm, near to Whipsnade village, was purchased. In 1931 Whipsnade Wild Animal Park opened, becoming the world’s first open zoological park.The first woman to be a curator at the London Zoo was Evelyn Cheesman.
In 1962, ‘Caroline’, an Arabian oryx, was lent to Phoenix Zoo, Arizona in the world’s first international co-operative breeding programme. Today the zoo participates in breeding programmes for over 130 different species.
At the start of the 1990s, the zoo had ammassed almost 7,000 animals; the nearest any other collection came to in Britain was Chester Zoo, with around 3,500 animals. Many of the species in London Zoo could not be seen anywhere else in the country, such as the wombat, Tasmanian devil or long-nosed potoroo.
Although this vast collection was part of the zoo’s appeal, it may also have been one of the main causes of its financial problems. This contributed to the zoo being faced with closing down in the 1980s. Due to the public change of attitude to animals kept in captivity and unsuitably cramped spaces, the zoo also suffered lower visitor numbers. However, when it was announced that London Zoo would close in 1991, a mass of public support in visitors and donations allowed the zoo to continue its work, attempt to balance its books, and take on the huge task of restoring its buildings and creating environments more suitable for animal behaviour in the late 20th century.
One benefit of the ‘swell of public support’ was the start of volunteer staff. Employed by both Education and Animal care, these volunteers give one day a week to assist the running of London Zoo and can be recognised by their red sweaters.