“Let’s Work for Wildlife.”
David Field is the Zoological Director of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), where his previous positions include Curator of Mammals and Curator of Whipsnade. He is Chairman of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA). He has been Assistant Director at Dublin Zoo and Head Keeper at Edinburgh Zoo, and has worked with a very wide range of animals.
Professor Field, what are your responsibilities at the London Zoological Society?
My position is Zoological Director, and my responsibilities are to the care and welfare of the animals in our collection.
Do you also work to ensure that London Zoo achieves its conservation objectives?
Zoos have a major role in conservation. We have to take care of individual animals, but we are about the conservation of species.
And what about educating people on the importance of animals?
The role of a modern zoo is for inspiring and educating the public, the visitors, schoolchildren, groups. One of the major objectives of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is to increase the way people value animals and nature.
What can a zoo like yours do to achieve this?
We can connect people to animals in a way no other place can, especially in an urban environment, and my job is to give people intimacy to animals.
Is London Zoo one of the oldest and most important zoos in the world?
It is the oldest scientific zoo. The first zoo was Schönbrunn Zoo, a royal collection in Vienna, and there were many menageries. But London Zoo, right from its founding by Sir Stamford Raffles, was doing for zoology what the Horticultural Society had done for botany. So it has always been based around education and research, and is a global zoo that collaborates with other responsible zoos across the globe to achieve conservation. That is important.
How was it decided to show the animals to the public?
In 1826, when the Zoological Society of London was first established, there was a vulture and a famous monkey, a lion-tailed macaque, and the zoo had offices on the Strand in London. Over time the Prince Regent granted land in Regent’s Park to the Zoological Society. Initially it was too dangerous to leave the animals there overnight, and they were taken back to Camden Town at night. From 1828 onwards there were permanent exhibits.
In its first 20 years the zoo was only open to the Fellows, not the general public, who started to hear about all the wonderful animals and really wanted to see all these amazing creatures and beasts from all parts of the world. The public thirst is no different today. The public are excited about seeing new animals and getting close to nature. To connect with the animals is the most amazing thing ever.
Is London Zoo one of the largest in the world?
Our size in London in terms of acreage is only 32 acres, but in terms of species we have one of the largest animal collections, including fish, invertebrates and corals. Our difference is that we don’t just concentrate on lions, tigers and elephants. Snails and things that others are not interested in need to be preserved and protected, and we believe we can do that.
How many visitors do you have, and who comes to the zoo?
In London we have 1.1 million a year. Families are important, and tourists, but a lot of older people come in too, and a lot of scientists. Zoos are socially inclusive, and in fact London Zoo is known as the best place for a first date.
What do the public come to your zoo to see in particular?
They might come wanting to see tigers or giraffes, but by the time they leave they are excited by small animals, a simple bird, snails and spiders, by nature as a whole. So what they come to see and the messages they leave with may be totally different.
How do you acquire new animals?
From other zoos. There are many zoos, but only a small number of responsible zoos. There are 400 zoos in the UK, but only 100 which are part of BIAZA, the British Zoo Association, who are there to achieve conservation and education. We don’t buy and sell animals with animal dealers, we only collaborate with other good zoos. International scientific breeding programmes mean we share our animals.
If you exchange animals with other zoos where they are born and bred, does this not take away their wildness?
We do try to stimulate the natural behaviour of the animals. We also do reintroduction to the wild, and those animals we rear in a slightly different way. We make sure they don’t become used to people. A bird or a leopard going back to the wild would be trained to go back to that world.
Which animals are the star attractions?
The most popular animals in zoos are individuals like tigers, elephants and gorillas, like Guy the Gorilla, or it can be an experience, like going “In with the Lemurs”. But go to a good zoo and small animals become exciting too.
Are people frightened by some of the animals?
When going “In With The Spiders” people claim they are frightened, but when they go in they are no longer afraid, but in awe. Respect for the animals is the main thing. The biggest challenge is to respect and value them.
Are penguins always very popular?
Are there some animals that you would like to have, but do not?
Some species we don’t have the space for in London, but I would really like some that have gone extinct. If we had them at the zoo we could have stopped them going extinct.
Are there many species now going extinct?
Many, on a daily basis. Amphibians have a worrying fungal disease in the wild and could go extinct before we can create a rescue population in the zoo. If we had kept dodos in the zoo I believe they would not have gone extinct.
Do zoos often come under fire, because some people think it is inhuman to keep animals in a cage?
I respect the views of people who feel this on an ethical basis. The welfare of animals in a good responsible zoo is a priority. There are many bad zoos which I would like to see closed down, but we have so many veterinarians that there are no welfare problems in our zoo. Conservation means we save species.
Does public opinion approve of zoos, or are the public against zoos?
There is always a small but vocal minority who do not like zoos, but good responsible zoos see their public support increasing all over the conservation world. Dr Simon Stuart, the Chair of the Species Survival Commission (SSC), and other major conservation authorities, recognise the importance of zoos and are asking for more assistance from zoos.
How can tigers be happy outside the jungle?
99% of the animals are actually born in zoos. It’s about providing complexity and choice to meet their physiological and psychological conditions. We are certainly able to do that, and we invest to meet that.
Have they ever escaped?
In the past they have. I have never seen lion and tigers on the streets of London in my time, and I hope I never will!
Do you think British people are more interested in animals than other nationalities?
The British people demand a great deal from their zoos, which they want to be among the best in the world, combining conservation and education. And when they do that the British are their greatest supporters.
The Duke of Cambridge and Sir Evelyn Rothschild work hard to defend elephants. Do you support their work for endangered animals?
We work with the Duke of Cambridge, who has been here a number of times. We assist him with his work in protecting wildlife. We are in regular touch and support the projects close to his heart. We are at the forefront of field conservation and protection.
Do you receive any money from the State?
No. We receive some conservation research money, but we give more than £10 million a year to conservation, directly from the people who come to the zoo.
How do you create your income?
We make it in different ways, admission charges, catering, fundraising events, or hosting a gala event such as the one that is in Tatler this week. We rely on the support of the British public coming into the zoo. We get donations and we sell souvenirs.
What does it cost to run your zoo?
It is expensive, and we apply for grants to help support our work. Every year we put about £10 million into conservation, £5 million into research and £5 million into education. For Whipsnade and London zoos it costs £20 million a year to run our whole operation, including our science and our field conservation. We also have offices in ten different countries.
Do you have to build special landscapes for the animals to flourish in their environments?
Yes, especially for things like a tropical forest and large exhibits, and it takes a lot of money to look after the animals in there. The Duke of Edinburgh inaugurated the Gorilla Kingdom, where we have a special landscape, recreating a gorilla environment. We create habitats that respond to the needs of the animal, and they are also built with the visitor in mind. All our animals can choose whether to be on show or off show. We don’t replicate the wild, but they are complex natural habitats.
Are zoos becoming more significant in what they can achieve in the world?
I have just this moment received an email from Polynesia confirming that our Partula snails have today been reintroduced to their former home for the first time in what has been an over fifteen year programme to save them from near extinction.
So your zoo is a popular institution and increasingly a real force for conservation?
Yes, and we are also developing new vaccines to help animals live better.
Over two hundred years many amazing things must have happened at the zoo?
Many times there has been an animal in trouble, or a wonderful birth.
How does the growth of the internet affect visitors to your zoo?
It will never replace the sight, the smell and the unpredictability of coming face to face with the real thing. Sir David Attenborough still believes in the power of zoos to give you the multi-sensory experience of that animal. When a tiger looks at you, it’s an experience to behold. Google work with us, and it makes people want to see the animals in real life.
11th August, 2015