Mariella Frostrup: Modern zoos are crucial

Last updated 27th July 2022

As a child, I fell in love with the animal kingdom not through personal encounters with the wild world, the forests of County Wicklow being low on noble beasts, but through a TV show called Daktari. My first stirring of passion wasn’t for some wily pop star (though the Bay City Rollers came a close second), but a docile, cross-eyed lion called Clarence, whose shaggy mane and double vision prompted heartfelt passion and pity in equal measure. Despite competition from a whole menagerie of other animals, Clarence, for me, was the main attraction in this pioneering ’70s series about an enterprising vet and his family, set in exotic East Africa. Seeing this King of the Jungle for real in his natural habitat was a treat that wasn’t to come for many years, and when it did, in Etosha National Park in Namibia, it was a pretty impoverished specimen that came loping down the road beside our Land Rover, embodying their mounting struggle to survive in the wild.

Until that short safari, Dublin Zoo was the closest I got to the African savannah, and what happy memories those zoo trips inspired, defined by the rarely attained full focus of our parents, as they introduced us to the other species of our planet. Taking my own daughter on a sketching trip to ZSL Whipsnade the other day took me back to those long-ago days of my own youth, and was also a shocking reminder of the speedy passage of time. Last time I checked out the chimpanzees, I was pushing Molly in her pram. Now, as a lithe 12-year-old, she hovered at my height and led the way.

On this sun-kissed autumnal day, the zoo was full of pram-pushing parents, and it got me wondering why we tend to focus such excursions on toddlers, instead of continuing the tradition when children are mature enough to become potential champions of the conservation cause. It had been years since I wandered a zoo, and where once I’d pitied the poor animals, dragged from their habitat and penned

in for our entertainment, it’s increasingly clear they have a vital role to play. It’s crucial that we breed in safety the species that are near extinction, and educate and inspire the next generation to care for the survival of the many creatures we’ve nearly managed to wipe out.

With greater space for the animals, engaging, interactive information about conservation campaigns and the opportunity to get up close with everything from a meercat to a white rhinoceros (another creature unlikely to survive into my children’s adulthood), today’s reputable zoos offer pleasure to all ages. It was on Molly’s insistence five years ago that my kids adopted their favourite beast through the World Wildlife Fund, one of our most smugly successful Christmas presents to date!

My son’s bedroom is papered with five years’ worth of photo updates of his charge, a then-baby orangutan called Koia, on whose welfare we get regular updates, while my daughter first indulged her polar bear passion, before moving on to pandas. At Whipsnade, we read the poignant plaque outside the lion’s enclosure, revealing that a mere 500 Asiatic lions still exist in the wild, and felt duty-bound to see if our sponsorship scheme might extend to these threatened creatures. If our children aren’t to grow up on a planet bereft of so many of the species that thrilled and amazed us in our own youth, we need to take urgent action.

A day out at your local zoo, sponsoring a favourite animal and stocking up on wildlife videos to supplement this winter’s TV diet are all great places to start.