Tuesday, 3 May 2016

London Zoo’s Monkey Hill (1925-1955) Revisited

I had heard of Monkey Hill. I had read that it was a less than successful exhibit at London Zoo in the 1930s. I also knew that it its population of baboons had played a big part in Zuckerman’s book, The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes, published in 1932, and in his work with Parkes on the the endocrine control of primate sexual cycles. But I was not aware until I read a recent article in the Bartlett Society’s journal that it was such an unmitigated disaster—one disaster that was followed by two more.

Hamadryas Baboons on Monkey Hill

When I first became interested in animals and zoos in the late 1950s I learned that there were some who felt that the efforts to change wild animal husbandry in London in the early decades of the 20th Century, together with the establishment of Whipsnade, by Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell FRS (1864-1945), had been a gallant failure. I will not explore that argument further here but the experience of Monkey Hill must have played some part in it.

After reading the article by Nick Thompson for the Bartlett Society*, I followed up his reference to a chapter by Jonathan Burt. That chapter provides the background to Mitchell’s developments and a less detailed account of the history of Monkey Hill. However, in reading it I found that history mixed with political and sociological groupthink together with flights of fancy—like the one that follows—not only risible but sufficiently irritating for the paper copy to be used as a missile launched at televised images of parochial Scottish politicians who need to see more of the world:

   The accounts of Monkey Hill, whether they are scientific, journalistic, or part of the zoo’s expression of its own achievements, all play on a variety of registers that include sexuality, gender difference, the culture of violence, and politics. Indeed, one could make Monkey Hill something of an exercise in cultural overdetermination and extend the cultural resonances to include the maimed bodies of World War I veterans, the Surrealist and modernist interest in the primitive, or the contemporary vogue for things Egyptian.

Mitchell’s changes, with buildings to match, were all about the prevention of disease—particularly tuberculosis—and the provision of ‘fresh air’. Death rates of animals at London were extremely high. Veterinary practice was neither able nor trusted to treat wild animals. Tuberculosis thrived in the heated animal houses and passed either from animal to animal or from the large percentage of the human population infected with the disease. Fresh air and hygiene, from sanatoria in Switzerland for the rich to better housing for the poor, was seen as the way forward in preventive human medicine. This movement, espoused, quite reasonably, by Mitchell, was reinforced by the creation of spectacular outdoor zoological exhibits by the Hagenbecks in Hamburg. Mitchell and much of the zoo world clearly felt left behind; London had to catch up.

The first structure to be completed was the Mappin Terraces in 1914, impressive and innovative at the time but a nightmare, like so many buildings at London, for future generations, as a legally preserved edifice that proved unsuitable for housing most of the animals they were intended for. Progress in changing London Zoo was then delayed by the First World War. Primates—highly susceptible to tuberculosis—were a priority. The new Monkey House (opened in 1927) was preceded by Monkey Hill (1925) designed as an open air pit-like enclosure with a spectacular rockwork centre. The Hill was to house a large group of Hamadryas Baboons (Papio hamadryas).  Hagenbeck already had one; indeed they had brought another to London from Germany in the winter of 1913/14 for a Christmas Zoo and Circus at Olympia containing over a hundred animals.

Monkey Hill was a 100 x 60 ft oval. The central rockwork was surrounded by a ditch 18 ft wide with a 12 ft deep outer wall over which visitors could view the hill from all sides. Every effort was made to provide features which would overcome some of the problems thought to be the result of keeping animals in stuffy houses. What  must have been a fairly large shelter inside the hill was heated. Ultraviolet-emitting quartz bulbs played on shelves and perches. Some of the ledges on the outside were also heated and equipped for ultraviolet radiation, in order to try to prevent that other scourge of primate (including human) populations lacking sunlight, rickets.

Animals were ordered from Chapman, the animal dealer of Tottenham Court Road, caught in Abyssinia and shipped to London. The Hagenbecks had advised that only males be kept. In the event 100+ baboons arrived at the Zoo and Chapman was paid £850 (£43,000 at 2015 prices). But six females, some with young, had also arrived as part of the batch. After the release onto the hill of the males, in two batches, the females were added. All hell broke loose.

From May, when the baboons were released, until the end of the year 27 died, mostly it would seem from the direct or indirect result of fights. Then, when the population was down to 56 two years after the opening, 30 adult females and five immature males were added. Within four or five weeks 15 females were killed as the males rampaged around them. By January 1930, five months later, the were 39 males and 9 females left. Later in the year the females and a male were removed.

In the absence of fighting, public interest in Monkey Hill withered. By 1937 there were 15 males left; they were removed and all but 3 sold.

In the meantime it had been decided to stock the Hill with Rhesus Macaques (Macaca mulatta); 79 were released together with 6 Guinea Baboons (Papio papio)(sex ratio of both groups unknown) in March 1938. Although press reports indicated that there was no serious fighting (one large male macaque being in charge) but the population declined rapidly. Two and a half years later, only 28 of the original 79 were still alive. A bomb hit Monkey Hill on 17 September 1940 and blew half a ton of the concrete rockwork right over the surrounding wall. Although the remaining monkeys were unharmed, the difficulties of managing possible escapes in wartime London meant that the monkeys were sold.

Thompson records that goats were kept on the Hill and I have a copy of an aerial photograph in the Illustrated London News published in August 1950 which clearly labels Monkey Hill as housing wallabies.

Disaster number three (or is it four?) occurred in the 1950s. Thompson records that George Cansdale, then superintendent, proposed that Monkey Hill should be refurbished and restocked with Rhesus Macaques. Despite the Zoo being in deficit, £2,500 (£64,000 at 2015 prices) was spent on repairs and improvements to the structure. On 2 April 1952, 240 (!) macaques arrived from a dealer. By 14 April, 14 had died; by the end of April 55 were dead. In May 29 died. By the end of the year 136 of the 234 had died. Tuberculosis had obviously been present in many of the monkeys bought from the dealer. This disaster was thought to be one of the reasons for Cansdale’s dismissal in January 1953 (ZSL’s Council used its old trick of abolishing the post); however, by all accounts there was more to his removal than that.

I have only skimmed the surface of the detailed account given by Thompson who also quotes Zuckerman’s unpublished notes on what happened after the second introduction of Hamadryas Baboons in 1927.

Leaving aside the attempts to resurrect Monkey Hill with macaques and returning to the original debacle with the Hamadryas Baboons, there were obvious difficulties with the concept of ‘free-ranging’ primates that the design of Monkey Hill did nothing to alleviate. Catching the animals for treatment was clearly impossible; proper servicing was difficult since after the Hill had been emptied mummified bodies were found in the rockwork caves. Sick animals under attack by other baboons had to be shot and hauled out of the enclosure by means of a grappling hook. But I remain astonished, even when viewed from 90 years after the events, that the real problems brought about by overstocking and a seriously wrong sex ratio could not have been foreseen. Who in their right mind would have expected anything other than mayhem to have resulted in the introduction of a population of 97 males and 6 females, or, in the later introduction, of 30 adult females to a party of 56 resident surviving males? In the words of Nick Thompson:

     How was it not “blindingly obvious”…that anything other than a bachelor group or a mixed group, with the sexes proportioned as they would be in the wild, would be doomed from the start, confined as they were in such a limited space.

It would be interesting to compare what happened at London with what happened to “me-too” copies of the Hagenbeck’s “Monkey Rock” built in zoos around Europe, the U.S.A. and Australia.

Monkey Rock at Taronga Zoo, Australia

Monkey Hill was demolished in 1955. Those looking for its site at Regent’s Park will find it is an area no longer accessible to the public. The area between the Mappin Terraces and the Outer Circle was redeveloped starting in the late 1950s to make service buildings and yard, the veterinary hospital and what was then the Wellcome Institute. But old Zoo maps and photographs show the structure as do postcards and old photographs.

Aerial photograph of London Zoo taken in August 1950. Monkey Hill (labelled as
containing wallabies) is bottom left centre. Illustrated London News

Scans of two maps from Guillery's The Buildings of London Zoo showing the location of Monkey Hill and the
hospital and research institute buildings that replaced it

Historians have to work with records that remain. Having read their accounts of Monkey Hill I feel frustrated to know now what I did not know at a time when I had plenty of opportunities to raise Monkey Hill with Lord Zuckerman and Sir Alan Parkes with whom I had conversations on other matters or with Gwynne Vevers, the son of Geoffrey Marr Vevers, the Zoo's Superintendent in Mitchell's era, who was advised by the Hagenbecks to put only male baboons on Monkey Hill. They would have known the inside story on the calamitous decisions that were made.

Some zoo historians have argued there was a ‘Golden Age’ for British zoos that preceded Mitchell at London, in other words the Bartlett years at London; others that the Mitchell years marked a highpoint. I hope I would be joined by others in thinking that wild animal husbandry took a huge leap forward that began, albeit slowly, in the 1960s. If there ever was a Golden Age for wild animal husbandry it is now.


*Thompson N. 2015. London Zoo’s Monkey Hill (1925-1955)…An unmitigated disaster?. Journal of the Bartlett Society 25, 5-30.
†Burt J. 2002. Violent health and the moving image. The London Zoo and Monkey Hill. In Animals in Human Histories, editor M J Henninger-Voss, pp 258-292.

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