- London Zoo and the Victorians, 1828–1859 by Takashi Ito
In 1836, Leigh Hunt recorded for the readers of the New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal his experience of feeding a bear at London’s Zoological Gardens: “It is curious to find one’s-self (literally) hand and glove with a bear; giving him buns, and watching his face, like a schoolboy’s, to see how he likes them. A reflection rises—‘If it were not for those bars, perhaps he would be eating me’” (481). Protected by the bars of the bear pit, Hunt can offer a light-hearted vignette that alerts us to the politics of captivity and spectatorship that characterized the modern zoo as it emerged in the early nineteenth century. Reading pleasure in the “face” of the bear while acknowledging his potentially ferocious otherness, Hunt’s reflection also highlights the emotional and sensory dimension of interspecies urban encounters enabled by the great “ark in the park”.1 George Scharf’s lithograph “The Bear Pit at the London Zoo,” which belonged to the widely circulated Six Views of the Zoological Gardens (1835), a discussion of which bookends Takashi Ito’s detailed study of the Regent’s Park Zoo, presents a very different perspective. Here, the wildness of the animal that Hunt perceives is subdued to an aestheticized image of human-centred fun, as a clumsy and comical bear climbs a pole in his cavernous pit to grab a bun proffered to him on a stick by a gentleman, to the amusement of the man’s well-heeled human family.
What distinguished the Gardens of the Zoological Society of London (hereafter referred to as the London Zoo) from the numerous stationary and travelling menageries that preceded it was that it mandated the scientific study of natural history or zoology as one of its distinctive purposes. Located in the centre of the city, the London Zoo, from its opening in 1828 to its admission of the general public in 1847, continued alongside commercial menageries in catering to a burgeoning Victorian leisure industry that reached its height in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, when the zoo’s admissions reached 667,243 (Åkerberg 216).2 With such popularity, the London Zoo was careful to manage public perceptions, particularly in manufacturing [End Page 195] the illusion that the captive animals were well cared for (in contrast to the reality of high mortality rates), and, as Scharf and Hunt attest, to promote the novelty and value of human-animal interactivity.
Ito’s study of the first thirty years of the London Zoo highlights this tension between education and entertainment, science and spectacle, across three interrelated thematic foci: cultural history, public science, and animal history. The study documents the early formation, organization, and administration of the London Zoo as an important cultural institution that, among other things, mediated between the scientific community and the non-specialist public, a public that the author is keen to point out was heterogeneous and mobile rather than static and monolithically bourgeois (5–6; 81–106; 165). The book contributes to a proliferating literature on the exhibition of animals in nineteenth-century Britain, including the work of Harriet Ritvo, Robert W. Jones, Sofia Åkerberg, Nigel Rothfels, Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, Wilfrid Blunt, and, more recently, Helen Cowie, whose exploration of travelling menageries and zoos offers insights into the wild-animal trade and the financial networks of empire, as well as mid-Victorian civic culture.
Chapter 1 recounts the earliest development of the London Zoo, beginning with the founding of the Zoological Society of London in 1826 (recognized as a public institution in 1829, when it received its royal charter). The chapter examines the initial layout of the zoo, introduces the key players involved in its evolution, and surveys the often-politicized debates about the zoo’s identity. The Zoological Society’s establishment of a museum in Burton Street, Piccadilly, was an expression of its ambition to advance and disseminate zoological knowledge: by 1828, the museum contained six hundred mammals...