UK: WHO'S WHO AT THE ZOO - LONDON ZOO. - Plans are afoot to save London Zoo at last. But there is a slight hitch. Lurking on the Regent Park site are two rival factions who believe that they alone can rescue the Zoo.

by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore flushes them out.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Plans are afoot to save London Zoo at last. But there is a slight hitch. Lurking on the Regent Park site are two rival factions who believe that they alone can rescue the Zoo.

Dr Jo Gipps, the director of London Zoo, revealed his business strategy in February this year with a flash, a bang and a puff of blue smoke. A crowd of journalists who had been summoned to the Zoo's head office in Regent's Park watched in amazement as he waved a thick report in the air and announced that here, at last, was the business plan of all business plans which would rescue the Zoological Society, the beleaguered Zoo's owner, from the doldrums once and for all. All he needed was £21 million - to be raised from private sponsors - over the next eight years, and all would be well.

The important point was that, thanks to a drastic cost-cutting exercise, the Zoo, which last year had declared itself to be a terminal case, was now on the mend and was all set to make a small profit - its first in over a decade - for the year ending March 1993. The implementation of the business plan could only improve the situation. Furthermore, the Government, the Zoo's landlord, which in the past had been sceptical about its future, was so delighted by the new break-even budget and by the realistic business plan that it was promising to re-new the Regent's Park lease in 1995.

This good news should have allowed the Zoo to press ahead immediately with its search for sponsors. But there was - and still is - a hitch. For, lurking behind the Zoological Society's governing council's approval of Gipps's plan, lies an unresolved quarrel which could still lead to the plan being jettisoned.

Within the Zoo there are two extreme and very powerful factions competing desperately to decide how the Regent's Park site should be developed. It is a contest between 'the Suits', the Zoo's commercial executives and their supporters, and 'the Beards', a pressure group among the Zoological Society's academic fellows.

Earlier this year the Suits were pinning their hopes on David Laing, a non-executive fellow of the Zoological Society and the champion of the Suits. He is a rich, Thaterchite architect and property developer and a member of the family who control John Laing, the building group. Until a few months ago, the Zoo represented a business opportunity for Laing. He believed it could make real money for him, his family and for anyone else who could be persuaded to invest in it, including the Zoological Society.

Opposing him is Colin Tudge, the leader of the Beards. Like Laing, he is a fellow of the Zoological Society, but there the resemblance ends. He is a militant, left-wing journalist and author who specialises in zoos and who was horrified by the idea that financiers might be allowed to take over the London site. His philosophy is that the Zoo should breed the maximum number of endangered species possible within the site. He believes that this is the only way to counteract the aversion so many members of the public now have to zoos, because they see them simply as menageries.

These fundamental differences made it impossible for the two men and their backers to sit together in the same room for long periods and, sadly, this is still the case.

Originally, Laing favoured an aggressively commercial approach to turning around the Zoo. He believed that the only way to pull in the crowds was to place the most popular animals in state-of-the-art sets which would look like their natural habitat. That was the idea behind his original £60-million plan which was finally turned down by the Zoo at the end of last year. It would have featured an enormous simulated tropical rainforest set in a glasshouse for gorillas and other forest animals, such as snakes and smaller monkeys; and it would have educated visitors about the threats to the animals' environments, through the use of videos and computer games. The same reasoning lay behind his plan earlier this year to borrow £35 million to build a new aquarium featuring enormous walk-through tanks for sharks and a simulated coral reef. Similar exhibits have attracted millions of visitors in the US and Japan.

Tudge regarded Laing's £16-million plan as tantamount to 'animal prostitution'. He complained that if Laing was to have his way the animals would be sidelined like 'bit part actors on a stage', being dwarfed by the hi-tech computers and video screens which would be dotted around the animal houses. Moreover, they would be fenced off from the plants and deprived of the plastic toys which they currently play with, since these would look out of place in a forest. The huge theatrical sets would also take up much of the already limited space in the Regent's Park site, so the breeding of large numbers of endangered species - Tudge's ideal - would not be possible.

Both sides had a point, but neither was prepared to give in without a fight. There had been too much backstabbing in the past to let bygones be bygones. Besides, millions of pounds were at stake.

The two factions' struggle for control of the Zoo began in earnest in 1991 when Tudge, along with the Reform Group - the Beards' pressure group - protested about mismanagement by the Suits on the Zoological Society's governing council and by the Zoo's full-time executives who were appointed by the council. The Reform Group's criticism was hard to resist since the Zoo was losing so much money (approximately £2 million per year) that the Zoological Society had decided to close down the Regent's Park site to save the Society's other assets, which include Whipsnade Zoo and the Institute of Zoology.

However, the decision to close the Zoo was subsequently revoked after a drastic cost-cutting exercise made 60 of the Zoo's 220 staff redundant and led to many animals being shipped off the site. But by then the keepers in Regent's Park had risen up against their managers, the director of London and Whipsnade Zoos had been ousted and a third of the council had resigned, making room for Tudge and his supporters. It was a full scale revolution - which was played out in front of the three million viewers who tuned into The Ark, Molly Dineen's four-part BBC TV documentary on the Zoo shown earlier this year.

The bitterness aroused during this upheaval has not died away. Hostile Suits still refer to Tudge contemptuously as 'that breeding fanatic' and they secretly believe that Tudge and his crowd are 'Leninists with their heads in the clouds'. What they want to know is how can the Zoo make money if it relies on breeding endangered species such as the partula snail when such species are more attractive to predators and poachers in the wild than to the average visitor to the Zoo. Some Suits on the council will not even speak to the elected Beards.

Tudge went on to fan the flames of the conflict by publicly slamming the idea of having Laing's aquarium in the Zoo, just when the council was discussing the project with Laing. According to Tudge, big tank aquariums are '19th century concepts using 21st-century technology'. He sees them as mere money-making spectacles which do nothing to further the breeding of endangered species. At a showdown meeting between Laing and the Zoo's negociating panel in March this year, Laing told Tudge that he could not go on negotiating with the Zoo over the feasibility of the aquarium if Tudge carried on running it down. So Tudge was silent. But in April Laing finally threw in the towel. The Zoo would not accept his aquarium and he was not prepared to carry on negotiating. On this issue at least the Beards had won the day - at a price.

For Laing's aquarium idea has subsequently been taken up by the Natural History Museum, and, if it comes to fruition, London Zoo could be in for a shock, according to Laing. Animal lovers may well prefer to see the spectacular new aquarium rather than the worthy old Zoo when it comes to organising a day out with the animals.

While these heated discussions were going on, Dr Jo Gipps, who used to be curator of mammals before his promotion to director of the Zoo in June 1992, reflected on how he could settle the differences between the two factions. Like many people within the Zoo, Gipps bears a striking resemblance to his favourite animals. He has the face of an eager young panda bear but tactically he is a cross between a chameleon and a professional diplomat, constantly refining the way he expresses himself depending on which side he is talking to. He is the perfect person to reconcile the views of both Beards and Suits. Whilst accepting that there are some issues which separate the two sides, he is confident that most of the arguments between them are inspired by misunderstandings. He has already made inroads into resolving what at one time looked like an impossible situation by working with 'the rebels' on special committees. He set these up last year to analyse what needed to be done within the Zoo and because he wanted to give the two parties a 'sense of ownership' over his plan.

The plan itself - which specifies where the animals are to be housed within the Zoo and in what kind of enclosure, without including detailed designs of the exhibits - is more in keeping with Tudge's philosophy than Laing's. There are no really spectacular exhibits. Whereas Laing was thinking of spending £20 million on his forest for gorillas, Gipps is merely intending to let the gorillas loose on the re-landscaped Mappin Terrace mountain area at a cost of £2 million. That will be one of his most expensive exhibits and will set the tone for the improvements around the rest of the Zoo. The projected increase in visitors is also relatively modest. Gipps expects the gate to go from the current 940,000 level to 1.2 million, compared with the 2.2 million (resulting in a projected £13 million net profit on ticket sales of £30 million) expected by Laing if his £60-million plan had been implemented. Nevertheless, Gipps's figures show that the Zoo stands to make a net profit of £1 million with his plan.

'You need to introduce new exhibits which have an impact and which pull in new visitors,' says Gipps. 'Going around the Zoo with a can of paint is unlikely to bring results. However, in my opinion - and I may be wrong - some of the hi-tech proposals for exhibits, such as those in the Laing plan, were substantially larger than was necessary to generate new visitors. I suspect you can invest too much.' Gipps now needs to approach potential sponsors quickly. So he is hiring a fund-raising manager and together they will produce the detailed arguments which he hopes will convince sponsors that the £21-million plan is a winner.

The Zoo has already collected £2.4 million, including the £1 million gift from the Emir of Kuwait. In addition, the Zoo has a sponsor who will hand over up to £1 million per year to ensure that there is enough money to pay for proper marketing, something which has been missing in the past. The same sponsor has promised to bail out the Zoo if it suffers losses as a result of an unexpected emergency, such as a train strike which reduces the number of visitors through no fault of the management. Furthermore, the Zoo could make about £250,000 extra per year when it takes over the running of its catering from Compass Services at the end of the year.

But Gipps is working against the clock. The Zoo's survival still depends on nothing going wrong until he has raised the development money. While a new advertising campaign stressing that the Zoo represents 'Conservation in Action' is expected to stabilise the number of visitors this summer, it would only take a 30% decrease at the gate - as happened in the spring of 1992 - for all Gipps's hopes to be dashed. The Zoo cannot afford to go back into the red. The chances of that happening will be weighed up by prospective sponsors who in the past have been put off by the Zoo's inability to meet its own operating costs. However, they may also want to look behind the detailed business plans and the balance sheet at the way the Zoo is being managed. For, after the cost-cutting, the Zoological Society's governing council put in place a new management structure in an effort to ensure that the Zoo runs more smoothly.

Before 1991 the divisions of the Zoological Society looked to head office for management and services. That did not work for London Zoo because the head office staff did not spend enough time working on the Regent's Park site. Now the emphasis is on 'divisionalisation'. The power has been taken away from head office and handed back to the different business units, which include the zoos. That is why Gipps can concentrate exclusively on London Zoo, whereas before the director of zoos had to work at both London and Whipsnade.

The divisionalisation philosophy, which has been accepted by the keepers' union, means that Gipps can restructure the middle management within London Zoo's animal houses and motivate them by increasing their salaries without having to keep in line with practices and salaries at Whipsnade.

Certainly something needs to be done to raise morale. The £1.4 million saved by the Zoo through cutting back on labour may be keeping the Zoo open but the cuts are imposing an enormous strain on the keepers. The animal houses used to be headed by curators and overseers who carried out breeding research and all the adminstrative paper work. These people now have to do everything. As a result, some of them have become so overworked that they are reaching breaking point. Take the giraffe house, for example. There are six giraffes here, including a deadly two-and-a-half-ton male. One kick from him and you would never get up. Nevertheless, at present there are only two keepers who are experienced enough to go safely into the enclosure along with the giraffes - there were five keepers prior to the 1991 cuts. If one of the two keepers were to become ill while the other was on holiday, who knows what might happen. Similar cuts have been imposed on the other animal houses. Attempts to solve the staffing problems by turning the keepers into generalists who can work in more than one animal house have had to be shelved because that merely transferred the manpower shortage from one animal house to another. The management has also had to take on board the fact that animals cannot be treated like sections in a factory. Giraffes, for instance, have been known to play up if they are handled by 'stranger' keepers.

In order to improve morale, Gipps has insisted that senior keepers should play their role in deciding what should go into his plan. That has not always worked. Keepers who are modest and down-to-earth when working in the animal houses often transform into pompous boardroom bores once they become involved in committees, as they try to conform to their idea of a boardroom director.

Other morale boosting measures have been adopted. Every two weeks Gipps holds a head keepers' lunch which acts as a safety valve for all the resentment which has been building up within the animal houses. They are stormy affairs. One acting head keeper refuses to attend on principle - which is his way of protesting about the fact that he is not paid a head keeper's salary.

The keepers who do attend are hardly more amenable. At a recent meeting the head of the giraffe house complained that he could not carry out his regular work if he also complied with the Education Department's demand that he should give speeches each afternoon to the public. Gipps ordered him not to give the speeches, only to be met by a barrage of complaints that the keepers were being reduced to 'shit shoveller' status. Gipps could only respond that things would change when his plan was put into effect. But this is of little comfort to keepers who have seen so many plans binned that they have no faith that Gipps's plan will have a better outcome.

Although they are happy with Gipps's plan when wearing their keepers' hats - since the exhibits will be kind to the animals - in their heart of hearts they suspect that Gipps may have produced a business strategy which might not make enough impact to pull in the public and the sponsors and to save their jobs in the long term. It is a depressing prospect.

They are also concerned that whilst Gipps may have produced a plan acceptable in broad terms to both Beards and Suits, more rows are brewing. It is all very well for Gipps to agree that any computer games and video screens to be installed should leave the animals centre stage - thereby taking Tudge's objections to hi-tech electronics into account - but the question is will Tudge and his allies agree to the final exhibit specifications which will have to be drawn up before the sponsors finally sign on the dotted line?

It certainly seems unlikely that the Beards will quietly allow Gipps to install major exhibits, such as the £2.8 million Forest Conservation Centre - a series of forest animal sets, backed up by electronic aids, including videos and computers, to explain the conservation message. Indeed, on that subject Tudge mutters darkly, 'We hope to put a stop to it nearer the time.'

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