Sugar and Spice and All Animals Nice

The wild and wonderful tale of the founding of London Zoo by Isobel Charman

Review by Louise Gillespie

The Zoo at a glance
With a cover that’s adorned with brightly sketched exotic creatures, The Zoo appears to be a children’s book. However, a quick skim through the pages and the reader is drawn in to a fascinating history lesson of the Regent’s Park Zoo and the rich scientific, political and economic history that surrounds it. In 313 pages, author Charman weaves a fascinating tale of colonial collections of birds and beasts, scientific exploration across the globe and the art of animal preservation of creatures both alive and dead.

The Zoo is a fascinating story that sees the green fields of Regent’s Park transform into a fantastic public menagerie complete with the background noise of hippopotamus, lions, giraffes and many other exotic species. It is also a book filled with bewilderment, from the animals bewilderment at being transported from their native habitats to a smog filled city ridden with disease, to the bewilderment of the keepers as to the animals failure to survive despite their zealous use of the latest medical concoctions, including the kangaroos who threw themselves at the spiked fences in a desperate attempt to escape, and a homesick chimpanzee called Tommy who wore a Guernsey frock and died by the fire in his keeper’s arms.

The way it’s written?
The structure of The Zoo may prove unappealing to some as each chapter focuses on one person’s involvement with the Zoo.  At times this feels rather frustrating; just as you are drawn in to one character and their trials with the Zoo, you turn the page and are flung into another man’s life (the book is unsurprisingly void of females except for the superb artistic hand of Elizabeth Gould, the animal preserver’s wife who often, whilst heavily pregnant, painstakingly created lithographs of exotic birds which stunned society.)

The story of The Zoo begins with Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles who dreamt up the notion of a zoological society during his time in Sumatra and Singapore.  It was during his return that his ship caught fire and he was forced to abandon his ‘Noah’s Ark’ of creatures lovingly chosen for London’s own Jardin des Plantes. Sir Raffles was tortured by the horrific sound of the animals as they died on the ship and this sparked his determination to introduce society to some of the world’s most spectacular specimens. From Raffles’ initial idea of a park for animals, to Charles Darwin’s explorations resulting in the idea of evolution, the journey of the London Zoo tells a much broader story of man’s obsession with beasts and our desire to understand, control and alter the natural order.

Who should read it?
Anyone who has ever stood in Regent’s Park Zoo, either as a child or adult and felt the sense of awe and admiration at being just metres from a carnivorous creature, a deadly viper or the unparalleled beauty of a Bird of Paradise. As the role of Zoo’s in society has moved from one of entertainment to conservation, the Regent’s Park Zoo continues to attract visitors from across the globe wanting to share in the magic of its inhabitants.

The Zoo’s best line
Upon the death of a Chimpanzee, the Waterford Chronicle on 9th April 1836 wrote:

‘The results of the dissection add to all the other wonders of the case, for we are told by some eminent anatmosists who were present at the operation, that unless they had been forwarned, all that they saw of the conformation of the animal would have led them to pronounce it human.’
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