Where the wild things are

The British public have been visiting zoos since Elizabethan times.

Driven by changing public attitudes, zoos have evolved from places simply of spectacle and scientific research to focus more on conservation and animal welfare.

11th century

Royal beasts of Britain


The Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry, featuring William I on the left

William the Conqueror established a royal menagerie at Woodstock Manor near Oxford, including lions and camels. They were seen as symbols of power.

This tradition was kept by his successors, who received exotic animals as gifts from foreign rulers. The animals provided entertainment to the king and his court.

From zoo to love nest: The unusual story of Woodstock

16th century

Lions go on show to the public

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Neil Oliver on elephants and a smoking baboon at the Tower of London. Clip from The One Show (BBC One)

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The public was first allowed to view the royal menagerie by Queen Elizabeth I.

It had moved to the Tower of London, where visitors could pat the younger lions that played in the grounds. Free entry was given to anyone who brought a dead cat or dog to supplement the animals' diets.

Cat fights and snake bites at the Tower menagerie


Commercial menagerie opens

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Exteter Change menagerie

When the Exeter Exchange opened, it cost a shilling to see the animals

To compete with the royal menagerie, showman Gilbert Pidcock opened his own animal collection at the Exeter Exchange on the Strand in central London.

Pidcock promoted his collection with eye-catching newspaper adverts. In one he assured the public his wild animals were "so well secured, that the most timorous may approach them in safety."

A menagerist's life and times: Gilbert Pidcock

Two nights ago I saw the tigers sup at Exeter ‘Change...

Lord Byron, 1813


Wild animal shows travel around Britain

Mary Evans


George Wombwell's menagerie toured the fairs of Britain

One of the first travelling menageries was founded by shoemaker George Wombwell, who realised people outside of London would pay to see wild animals.

By 1839 his menagerie had 15 wagons of animals and a brass band. It received a visit from Queen Victoria at Windsor Fair in 1847. The menagerie inspired circuses to start using animals in their shows. Impresario George Sanger even invited Wombwell's lion trainer to perform at his circus.

The tale behind George Wombwell's tigerExploring the Victorian circus


Britain's first scientific zoo opens in London


London Zoo

London Zoo had to open its gates to paying visitors to survive

London Zoo was founded for the study of animal species thanks to a growing Victorian interest in natural science.

It acquired many animals when the Tower menagerie closed. The zoo was run by The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) in Regents Park and was only open to members. But its large collection of animals was costly to feed and maintain, so in 1847 it opened to the general public. Bristol Zoo, Edinburgh Zoological Gardens and Belle Vue Zoo near Manchester were also founded around this time.

Landmarks in ZSL historyYour Paintings: Menagerie lions leave the Tower


Darwin inspired by great apes in London Zoo

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Darwin's biographer Randal Keynes on the moment Darwin met his first great ape at London Zoo. Clip from Timeshift: A Day at the Zoo (BBC Four)

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It was at London Zoo that Charles Darwin saw his first orangutan, called Jenny. He watched in amazement as she had a tantrum over a withheld apple.

The naturalist observed that Jenny's intelligence and emotional expression was similar to a human child. He was profoundly moved by the experience and it influenced his theory of evolution published 20 years later.

What was Darwin's theory of evolution?

Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work... I believe true to consider him created from animals.

Charles Darwin, 1838


Zoos acquire animal stars to attract visitors

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Historian Andy Flack on the cultural phenomenon Obaysch the hippo. Clip from Timeshift: A Day at the Zoo (BBC Four)

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London Zoo created a literal splash by exhibiting the first hippo in Europe since the time of the Roman Empire.

The young animal, called Obaysch, weighed 37st and attracted up to 10,000 visitors a day. The zoo then bought Jumbo the elephant who became the new star of the collection. Bristol Zoo acquired Zebi the elephant who entertained visitors by eating straw hats.

The animal celebrities that lived at London Zoo


The public buy tigers at Harrods

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Harrods, 1910

Harrods in Knightsbridge, London, pictured in 1910

The public fascination with wild animals was such that Harrods opened an exotic pet store.

Wealthy customers could buy animals from tiger cubs to alligators. Many of these creatures were given to zoos after they grew too big or unmanageable for their owners.

From Harrods to Kenya: The story of Christian the lion


Zoos move out of cities

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June Williams, daughter of Chester Zoo founder, on her father's dream of a zoo without bars. Clip from Inside Out North West (BBC One)

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In the early 20th century zoos were inspired by Carl Hagenbeck's zoo in Hamburg, which gave animals more space to roam.

George Mottershead opened Chester Zoo in the Cheshire countryside where there was plenty of room to expand. In the same year ZSL opened the first wildlife park at Whipsnade, inspired by the vast nature reserves in Africa.

What were the challenges of building a zoo?

It is so important... to try very hard to keep the animals as near to their natural life as possible.

George Mottershead, founder of Chester Zoo


Animals put down in World War Two

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Richard Bacon looks at how WW2 affected British zoos. Clip from Timeshift: A Day at the Zoo (BBC Four)

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When the war broke out there were fears that wild animals could escape during air raids.

Some zoos responded by putting down animals such as poisonous snakes and lions. Others moved their animals to safer places. Bristol’s big cats were evacuated to Chester.

The massive WWII pet cullYour Paintings: Zebra escapes during air raid


David Attenborough presents his first nature programme

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David Attenborough catches a crocodile in 1956. Clip from Zoo Quest (BBC Television Service)

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Attenborough spent three months in Sierra Leone looking for wild animals to put in zoos.

The project was sponsored by the Zoological Society of London and featured in the TV programme ‘Zoo Quest.’ The public now saw what life was like for animals in the wild compared to captivity.

Watch nature clips from David Attenborough's early yearsIn pictures: The seven ages of Attenborough

My first natural history series... brought to the screen places and animals that had never before been seen on television or in the cinema.

David Attenborough, 2012


Pioneering zoo puts conservation first

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Mark Carwardine looks at the Gerald Durrell's pioneering work. Clip from Timeshift: When Britain Went Wild (BBC Four)

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A new wildlife park was set up in Jersey with the founding principle of preserving endangered species.

Owner Gerald Durrell was deeply affected on his travels when he observed animals losing their habitat and struggling for survival in the wild. He made it his zoo’s mission to save species from extinction.

Who was Gerald Durrell?

You cannot begin to preserve any species of animal unless you preserve the habitat in which it dwells.

Gerald Durrell, 1966


First safari park opens

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Kate Humble finds out about the founding of Longleat Safari park. Clip from Animal Park (BBC Two)

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The first safari park allowed visitors to drive past animals in the grounds of Longleat House in Wiltshire.

It was set up by the former circus-owner Jimmy Chipperfield and the Marquess of Bath. This was the heyday of British zoos with a number of suburban zoos and safari-style parks opening their doors.


Fighting for animal rights

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Save the whale protest

A protest on behalf of whales in London on 11 December 1975

In the 1960s and 1970s there was a growing unease about how animals were treated in captivity.

Philosopher Peter Singer reflected this concern in his book, Animal Liberation. In it he argued that animals could suffer just as much as humans and therefore their interests were worthy of equal consideration. He argued humans were guilty of species prejudice. These ideas inspired the nascent animal rights movement.

What is meant by animal rights?


British zoo laws introduced for animal welfare


Giant pandas at London Zoo

Two giant pandas, Chia-Chia and Ching-Ching, were kept at London zoo in 1981

The Zoo Licensing Act 1981 set standards for animal enclosures in Britain.

It also required zoos to focus on conservation and education. Zoos began to breed animals in captivity rather than taking them from the wild. Soon afterwards animal rights charity Zoo Check was set up to help protect the welfare of captive animals.

Born Free: the story of Zoo CheckLicensing zoos: what does the law say?

Zoos must… provide each animal with an environment well adapted to meet the... needs of the species to which it belongs.

The Zoo Licensing Act, 1981


London Zoo almost closes

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Mark Mardell reports on the possible closure of London Zoo. Clip from BBC News, 07 April 1991 (BBC One)

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In the early 1990s zoos were in crisis with many suffering a significant drop in visitors.

Surveys of the time suggested three quarters of Britons were opposed to keeping animals in captivity. At one point London Zoo was months from closure after government funding cuts.

What are zoos for? Helen Skelton investigates

The zoo's financial problems have led to fears that it will be forced to close within a few months.

New Scientist, 1991


Captive gazelles released back into the wild


Sand gazelles, ZSL

Sand gazelles in Saudi Arabia continue to flourish thanks to the reintroduction plan

Zoos began to shift towards better animal care and conservation in response to the crisis.

One of the first signs was zoo involvement in breed and release programmes for endangered animals. London Zoo worked with the Saudi Wildlife Authority to release 100 sand gazelles in Saudi Arabia. It was the world's largest release of captive-bred mammals.

London Zoo's conservation map of the world


Bristol Zoo opens £3million enriched enclosure

Bristol Zoo

Penguin at Bristol Zoo

A penguin swims in Bristol Zoo's 'Seal and Penguin Coast' enclosure

Bristol Zoo invested in 'Seal and Penguin Coasts', which included deep pools fitted with wave machines, beaches and islands.

It marked a shift among big zoos towards building ‘showstopper enclosures’ from Spirit of the Jaguar at Chester to Gorilla Kingdom at London.

How do you enrich a zoo animal's life?


Pioneering keyhole surgery saves giraffe

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John Morrison reports on pioneering surgery performed on a giraffe at Edinburgh Zoo. Clip from BBC News, 16 February 2004 (BBC One)

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Sapphire was the first giraffe to have keyhole surgery to mend a fractured jaw. The operation at Edinburgh Zoo saved her life.

It marked a new willingness by progressive zoos to treat individual animals with the latest technology. At Bristol Zoo a gorilla called Romina underwent a ground-breaking cataract operation.

Developing keyhole surgery for animals


Chester Zoo launches Borneo conservation project

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Helen Skelton finds out about Chester zoo's orangutan conservation project. Clip from What are zoos for? (BBC iWonder)

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Progressive zoos were now becoming home-bases for animal conservation work across the world.

One example was at Chester Zoo, where staff built bridges linking up pockets of orangutan habitat in Borneo. Orangutan populations had become increasingly isolated from one another as their habitat was threatened by palm oil plantations, roads and villages. Zoos were now as committed to animals in the wild as those in their care.

Building orangutan bridges in Borneo

If you want to save jaguars and hummingbirds the only way to do so is to save the places where they live.

David Attenborough, 2012