c.2019 New York Times News Service
LONDON — One man poured beer on a tiger. Another tore off his shirt and attempted to enter the penguin pool. Music blared and drinks flowed.
Those were some of the scenes described during the 2014 season of London Zoo’s late-night adult-only event, which is billed as a way to bring people closer to the animals outside of regular zoo hours and to raise funds for conservation.
General admission tickets for the Friday sessions, which run every summer and are called Zoo Nights, start at 20 pounds, or about $25, and more than 1 million pounds in revenue has been generated since 2017. The funds go toward international conservation programs and efforts to combat the illegal wildlife trade, plastic pollution and habitat loss.
But activists say the mix of alcohol and music at the sessions — this year’s event began Friday — is detrimental to the animals that serve as the backdrop. Many have called for the sessions to be canceled.
Jordi Casamitjana, a senior campaign manager at the animal rights group PETA in Britain, said the zoo was placing profit over animal welfare.
“It’s very obvious that it’s a profit-driven exercise,” Casamitjana said in a phone interview. “There’s no way you can organize these events without causing stress to the animals.”
A petition calling for the event’s cancellation had garnered more than 100,000 signatures Monday, citing a constellation of problems that were detailed by the British daily The Guardian in its investigation in 2014.
After that report, authorities in London opened an inquiry but found no evidence of animal welfare violations.
London Zoo has dismissed the renewed concerns, saying in a statement that the opposition to the event was the result of “heavy sensationalized” news reports from previous years and calling the petition “ill informed.”
“No visitor ever injured an animal, nor got into an animal enclosure,” the zoo said in an emailed statement. “Zoo Nights, like all events held during the day or after hours, is carefully planned to ensure that our animals are always well looked after.”
Promoted as a chance to see “what the natural kingdom get up to after hours,” the event allows visitors to take guided tours of the park, attend talks hosted by zookeepers, listen to live music and wander through different stands in a festival-like atmosphere.
On the opening night of the 2019 season — which runs for eight Fridays through July 26 — women dressed as zebras paced the grounds on stilts, lawn chairs encircled an acrobat, and children were noticeably absent.
Visitors sported animal ears and elaborate face paint and wandered past the enclosures of Humboldt penguins, towering giraffes and Sumatran tigers, drinks in hand. Music pulsed from speakers in the background.
Those in attendance on the opening night said they had mixed feelings. Daniel Wood, 25, who was making his second visit to the zoo, said he had no major concerns about the event, despite his view that city zoos did not provide the best quality of life for animals.
“City zoos should be phased out, if you look around, it’s not a massive space,” he said.
But he did express some concern about the pop music flowing from nearby speakers. “It’s quite loud, and I’m not sure how much the lion appreciates Dua Lipa,” he said.
Lucy Forrest, 25, attended the event with a group of friends. She said she trusted that the zoo was providing the best care possible for the animals.
“It’s about conservation, the welfare of animals, and allowing people to see animals they normally wouldn’t,” she said.
Outside the zoo entrance, about a dozen protesters had gathered, chanting, “Shame on you,” as visitors entered. Some of the demonstrators held signs with the message, “Captivity is not captivating,” in red lettering.
Donald Broom, emeritus professor of animal welfare at the University of Cambridge, praised the educational value of Zoo Nights but said there was room for improvement.
“Encouraging more people to take an interest in animals is a positive thing,” he said.
“It can be done in such a way that there aren’t any negative effects on the animals,” he added, saying that he felt the music should be turned off, for instance.
Broom said that London Zoo had taken steps to improve animal housing and that the site had greater space and more resources than many others around the world. But zoos must do more, he said, including controlling human contact with the animals — a difficult balance for zoos to achieve when most visitors want to get as close as possible to the enclosures.
“You need long periods in which people are not visible,” Broom said. “It’s difficult for animals to deal with humans close to them.”
Zoo visitors have been known occasionally to take their fascination with animals a step too far. In Arizona, a woman was attacked by a jaguar this year after climbing over a barrier to take a photograph.
Some activists, like Casamitjana, say the “Zoo Nights” event exacerbates a stressful situation for the animals. He said that the lack of stimuli and space in an animal enclosure was already disruptive and that loud noises at unexpected hours only furthered the psychological damage.
“This is not just an issue of London Zoo in particular, but of captivity,” he said. “Animals belong to the wild.”