London Zoo and the Victorians, 1828-1859

Many strands of history come together in Dr Ito’s book – urban, cultural, social, scientific and imperial – to examine the popularity and impact of London Zoo in its early years. Now published in paperback for the first time, Dr Ito’s account demonstrates how historic animal / human relationships can powerfully inform our understanding of the past.

The book is developed from my Ph.D. thesis submitted to the University of London. I remember how my mind went blank at the progression viva. The examiner who played the bad-cop role began with a provocative question: ‘Why are you studying the history of the zoo? I do not like to see animals in captivity. Don’t you think zoos are cruel institutions?’ Of course, she deliberately mixed up the ethical question of the zoo with the meaning of writing its history, just to see how I was going to respond to the challenge. In retrospect, I should have replied that the criticism against modern zoos should not blind us from their histories within which the criticism itself can and should be situated. But I could not say a word, confused by the kind of intellectual confrontation that was quite new to me.

This event led me to contemplate the question: why and how the history of zoos counts. That is why the beginning part of the book goes straight into this question and suggests that zoos open up an ideal space for scholars to explore the changes in human-animal relationships. As one of the oldest zoos still existent in the world, the London Zoo merits historical investigation. I found a number of fascinating source materials, each piece of which is a fragment of the changes, yet put together, draws out their trajectory. If I were nonetheless to name only one material, the most charming, intriguing and thought-provoking would be the frontispiece illustration of one piano scorebook entitled Hippopotamus Polka (page 128). The male partner in the ballroom, apparently heavy in his steps, can be construed either as a form of anthropomorphism or conversely as a metaphor of zoomorphism. Hence the blurring of the human/animal boundary. In comparison with recent animated films about animals such as Zootopia (2016), the fantasized human/animal hybridity can be used as a benchmark to gauge how different our perceptions of animals have become from those held by Victorian zoo lovers, and what we still have in common with people who played and danced Hippopotamus Polka.

Hippopotamus Polka

A recent visit to the London Zoo brought me a further discovery: its history has turned into a heritage worthy of display. Ravens’ Cage, designed by Decimus Burton in the zoo’s early days, stands solitarily on the lawn today, no longer used as an enclosure for confining birds. It has witnessed how the standard of zoo animals’ care and treatment has changed over time. The signboard in front of it notes the transition, declaring that the ironwork aviary ‘remains purely as a celebration of our long history’.

The blank space of the empty cage, which recalls the presence of birds in their absence, makes me wonder about the zoo’s future in the era of Anthropocene. A day might come when there are no real animals therein, except for human-animals wearing augmented reality headsets and roaming the ground to find and watch virtual lions and elephants through the lenses. Still, with no animals breathing in zoos, or even with no zoos any longer on the earth, there would be no end to the meaning of writing their histories.

Dr Takashi Ito is Associate Professor in Modern British History, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies

London Zoo and the Victorians, 1828-1859
by Takashi Ito
Royal Historical Society, Paperback, 8 colour, 21 b/w illus., £13 or $16.87

Subscribe to the Boydell & Brewer blog via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

* indicates required

Recent Posts