Gardens of intelligence

May 19 2008

There were private menageries, if not public zoos, in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China. In China, they existed from the Shang dynasty, the beginning of Chinese civilisation in the Yellow River basin. Wen Wang, founder of the Zhou, built the first well-known animal reserve. According to Wikipedia, Wen called it “Lingyou, commonly referred to as the ‘Garden of Intelligence’. A more accurate translation would be ‘Garden for the Encouragement of Knowledge’.” Gardens of Intelligence would be a good title for a history of zoos.

The Latin word vivarium referred to the stockyards and arenas where wild animals were held for public spectacles. In medieval Europe some monarchs, monasteries and municipalities maintained collections of wild animals. One was the menagerie in the Tower of London. The oldest existing zoo, at Schönbrunn in Vienna, evolved from a Hapsburg menagerie established in 1752. It was opened to the public in 1779. Did the eighteenth century look at zebras as the nineteenth century looked at freaks?

London Zoo, mentioned in the last post but one, often calls itself the first scientific zoo, but the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes was established as part of the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in revolutionary Paris in 1793. The abbreviation “zoo” first appeared in Britain about 1847, when it was used for the Clifton Zoo in Bristol.

London Zoo, c 1828

The camel house in 1835

London Zoo claims to have opened the first reptile house, in 1849; first public aquarium, in 1853; first insect house, in 1881; and first children’s zoo, in 1938. It receives no state support.

It owned the only living quagga ever to be photographed, before the species was hunted to extinction c 1870 in southern Africa

The first hippopotamus to have been seen in Europe since the Roman Empire, and the first in England since prehistoric times, arrived at London Zoo in May 1850 as a gift from the Khedive of Egypt in exchange for some greyhounds and deerhounds. He or she was named Obaysch.

In 1865, Jumbo, the largest elephant known at the time, who had been born in the French Sudan, was transferred to London from the Jardin des Plantes. His name may have come from Jambo, Swahili for hello. He was sold to the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1882 and in 1885 was crushed and killed by a locomotive in St Thomas, Ontario.

Winnipeg or Winnie was an American black bear given to the Zoo in 1914 by a Canadian Lieutenant, Harry Colebourn. AA Milne visited it with his son Christopher Robin, with consequences we know.

The first giant panda, Chi Chi, arrived in 1958. She had been destined for an American zoo, but Washington had ceased trade with communist China and she was refused entry to the US. The Zoological Society of London had stated it would not encourage the collection of wild pandas, but it was pointed out that she had already been captured. She died in July 1972.

According to the historians Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, nineteenth-century zoos reflected the determination of imperialist nations to classify and dominate (Wikipedia).

List of zoos. I may have forgotten some, but I score London, Chessington, Guangzhou, Singapore (Jurong Bird Park), Sydney (Taronga Park), Santa Barbara.

Artists at the Jardin des Plantes, from L’Illustration, August 7 1902

2 Responses to “Gardens of intelligence”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Doesn’t the picture of the camel house distantly echo Romantic ideas about the state of nature? While the gate is open, there is no barrier between the human beings and the animals.


  2. […] Gardens of intelligence […]


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