Sunday 28 July 2013

ITV’s The Zoo: An Own Goal for The Zoo?

ITV’s three-part television series on London and Whipsnade Zoos has just ended. It was, of course, as dumbed down and as superficial as one would expect of ITV at 8.00 pm. However, what the Zoological Society of London (why was it 'Zedessell' with every breath?) clearly saw as an exercise in free publicity seemed to me to backfire.

Nearly every sequence (ignoring the endless repeated cutaways and fill-in shots) involved some kind interventions by vets or the hand-rearing of mammals and birds by keepers. Notwithstanding the fact that advances in veterinary practice have had an enormous impact on our ability to care for wild animals in captivity and the Zoo itself has been in part responsible for the impressive array of technology now available, the truth is that just about every veterinary intervention that is necessary in a zoo reflects a failure of animal husbandry of some kind. In the same way, hand-rearing reflects a failure to provide the physiological or psychological requirements of the mother. Calling in the vet or having to hand rear are indicative of failure — not success — in zoo practice.

I presume that so much emphasis was placed on the team of vets because operations on animals provide ‘good’ television for the great British public to gawp at, but some of the ‘health checks’ seemed more likely to prevent breeding (through the physiological axis that links stress with reproductive success) than enable it. Cute hand-reared mammals and stroppy, fluffy penguins fall into the same category of ‘good’ television but failed husbandry. I really do hope that the emphasis the producers of the programmes chose does not reflect the balance of activity at the two zoos in the 2010s. Surely, wild animal husbandry has advanced more than that in the past thirty years even if some of the housing at the Zoo hasn’t. We in this house may not be alone in thinking that we saw more interventions by the vets at the Zoo than interventions by the Blair-Brown government.

On one redeeming note, the baby Malay Tapir and its mother did appear in the final episode without an anaesthetic dart in sight. But The Zoo was not The Ark and Molly Dineen it was not.