Modern Knowledge: Zoos of the World – James Fisher (London, 1966)

I love going to the zoo. It might have been my favourite childhood past-time and it’s certainly one I’d like to do more as an adult. It helps that my ‘local’ zoo – Chester – is one of the best in the country . While growing up, and being friends with a vegan who hates zoos has led to many many philosophical arguments about the value of zoos, I still think that they do an important job for conservation in a world where animals are increasingly being squeezed out by humans.

I spotted this large hardback gem when browsing the shelves of Broad Street Books, one of the many excellent bookshops in Hay-on-Wye. There, right at the back of the shop – a place full of little gems where I also picked up a beautiful little sun-faded copy of Graham Green’s ‘The Heart of the Matter’ – I saw the bold print on the spine of this book. What’s more, it was only two quid – how could I resist?


Zoos of the World by J.L. Fisher

The ‘Modern Knowledge’ series, by Aldus Books of London, appears to have fulfilled a similar purpose to Pelican books. Intended to educate the ‘casual’ reader about a series of topics. The back flap includes endorsements from a couple of random academics extolling the virtues of the series. This book came out in 1966, and was written in 1965, so it was 51 years out-of-date when I picked it up. Still, I was drawn to it partially for the same reason I am drawn to the Pelicans – the prospect of seeing a snapshot of knowledge at a certain time, trapped in a book like a mosquito in amber but still potentially informative.

Fisher, a ‘zoo man’ (to use one of his phrases) himself, gives the reader an insider’s perspective on the working of zoos in quite remarkable detail. When I picked the book up I had a flick through and was interested to see sections on aspects of zoos I had never really through about (like architecture and design) but I thought it might be aimed at children. Alas, no – while the writing is clear enough for an older child to understand the book is quite clearly aimed at an intelligent but non-specialist reader.

The author brings his personal experience as a former employee of London Zoo, and his own personal passion for zoos (he seemed to visit global zoos quite frequently) to the work regularly. He deals with the most important ‘backroom’ aspects of zoos – talking about what zoos tried to do and how they do it. He first charts the history of animals in captivity from public interest to the more scientifically oriented zoos of today, always mindful of the central dilemma of zoos – their need to entertain the public and their need to look after animals. Given his own experience he talks about London Zoo quite a lot, which made me want to visit the place (I walked through it down Regents’ Canal a few weeks ago and saw some African painted dogs and a pretty remarkable aviary but have never been inside).

As well as a history of zoos, the book covers aspects such as the risk to animals in the wild which zoos were helping to alleviate, the challenges of breeding and keeping different types of animals (this has probably changed but at the time Australia refused to allow Koala bears out of the country to any zoo but San Diego because it had a natural supply of the right sort of Eucalyptus leaves). He also talks about the collectors who acquire animals for zoos – this tied in quite well with my recent discovery of the works of Gerald Durrell detailing his animal-acquiring exhibitions with great humour and charm, there was even a couple of pictures of a very young David Attenborough capturing a Komodo Dragon, proof the man has always been brilliant. Here is a video of said capture. Then Fisher goes on to talk about zoo design, the planning of enclosures for animals and how this changed over time, the risks and research inherent in zoos, and some suggestions for their future directions.

Throughout, the work is very generously illustrated with photographs and drawings, as well as tables, diagrams and maps, though most of these are in black-and-white and it would have been nice to see more colour photographs, especially of the animals. Fisher’s knowledge of zoos is very comprehensive, but it is clear from the way he draws upon his knowledge that he knew a lot more about North American, European and Australian ones than those in Asia and Africa. Indeed, he had close personal relationships with many of the leading figures in prominent zoos in Europe, North America and Australia.


An excellent illustration of an escaped Kangaroo rampaging around London Zoo

While a very good book, it goes without saying that a 51-year-old work  about ‘modern zoos’ is dated. The rate of species extinction, the breadth of scientific knowledge, and the purpose of zoos has no doubt changed a lot in the intervening period. Trends which seemed to have begun only recently around the book’s publication – such as the removal of some small and uncomfortable enclosures, and more concerted efforts between zoos at conservation like the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and its’ famous ‘red list’ of endangered species  have continued into the present day. The zoo with bars, a distinctly nineteenth-century invention, has largely become a thing of the past. Roadside zoos were another relatively new phenomenon at the time of publication. The author was a big fan of Birdland in Gloucestershire in particular (a place that still seems to be going strong). Other roadside zoos, as the author warned, are considerably less ethical – and even now the fight to shut the unethical ones down continues.

So, despite being very dated. Modern Zoos was an interesting read. Which, in lieu of the html skills to insert a star, I will give four circled times’ ⊗⊗⊗⊗

Even where it is clearly no longer up to date, many of the issues it covers are still relevant to zoos today. While no doubt different today than 50 years ago the challenges of breeding, keeping certain animals, designing an attractive and comfortable place for guests and animals, and conservation remain challenges for any zoo and its staff. Thus the work was both interesting historically and as a way to think about what goes on behind the scenes at the zoo. If Fisher brushes aside criticism of zoos a little too readily (as you would expect of a lifelong ‘zoo man’) he is at least sensitive to them, as all those involved in the zoo business should be in their quest to preserve important and rare species and also generate enough revenue to undertake conservation work.

It seemed appropriate to put some links at the end of this one:

-the World Wildlife Fund

-the International Union for Conservation of Nature

London Zoo

Chester Zoo

-Peta’s arguments against zoos



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