A Walk on the Wild Side
"A zoo is never only a zoo: it is, in large part, a place that becomes entwined with the peoples and worlds around it.” So wrote Dr. Andrew Flack, a teaching fellow in modern history at the University of Bristol, in his book The Wild Within: Histories of a Landmark British Zoo about the Bristol Zoo Gardens, the fifth-oldest zoo in the world. He was in part referring to the symbiotic relationship the institution, its animals, and its personnel enjoy with the hundreds of thousands of visitors that attend the Bristol Zoological Society’s two high-footfall sites every year.
This was clearly illustrated during the COVID-19 lockdown when both the Bristol Zoo Gardens in Clifton and the forty-acre Wild Place Project in south Gloucestershire, that usually attract more than 3,000 visitors per day at high season, saw the numbers drop to zero overnight after the Government’s advice to close. While the doors were closed to visitors, maintaining the site and the welfare of the animals continued, and Ian Pogue, the head of health and safety at Bristol Zoo Gardens, described the dramatic and sudden eerie silence around the sites.
“The animals have found it very strange. The squirrel monkeys are normally always chattering as part of the normal interaction because they are so used to the visitors. They have become so accustomed to having people around that since we have been closed, they have been strangely silent, almost in mourning. It’s as though they are thinking, ‘Where is everybody?’”
A New Habitat
Pogue is himself a new specimen to the zoo. Just over a year ago he was the health and safety and loss prevention manager at high-end fashion and leisurewear brand Superdry, where the only cages he was familiar with were those for moving stock around at the back of stores or in the distribution centres (DCs). Now he is in charge of maintaining safety across the estate of large enclosures that define Bristol Zoological Society, which includes that of the animals, the keepers, and the customers across acres of recreated habitats and terrains, from wide open savannahs to the tree-top retreats of multi-million pound Gorilla Island, which includes a reinforced glass floor to enhance the visitor experience.
Whereas in his previous retail life the business had a myriad of management layers, Ian now has a direct reporting line to the very top of the organisation. Although his title is health and safety manager, he is the head of the function reporting directly into Finance Director Angela Mather and CEO Dr. Justin Morris. This less hierarchical approach that actively encourages fresh new thinking is also reflected in the fact that Bristol Zoological Society, a registered charity with no state support, has a new board, the oldest serving member of which has only been in post for eighteen months.
“If you had said to me just over a year ago that I would be head of health and safety at a zoo, I simply would not have believed you,” Ian said. “But it’s been a great move and a fantastic journey because of the variety. There are no two days the same.”
Ian is the one-man health and safety team, but he spends his time talking to and working with every single person in the zoo, from Dr. Justin Morris to the part-time volunteers.
He continued, “Most of my time is spent walking to sites and seeing staff and volunteers. I like to be seen as someone who is here to help and assist, rather than an obstacle to new ideas or developments at the zoo. I spend on average two days per week at Wild Place and three days at Bristol Zoo. That could mean four or five meetings a day with key stakeholders, or one big meeting, depending upon the issue and the time of the year.”
Whereas in his previous career life he would have been managing health and safety and loss in a store or DC environment, a typical day at Bristol Zoo, if such a thing exists, involves a variety of updates and daily reports. They cover everything from visitor accidents to site maintenance and planning to ensure no animals escape and, if they do, that there are plans in place, including regular drills to manage them quickly and efficiently, and lessons are learnt.
“We recently had a male squirrel monkey who was being bullied by the females escape from his enclosure but within the zoo grounds. We have very open enclosures separated from the public by a stretch of water,” he said. “He could swim and decided to make a break for it. He then climbed out and high into the branches of a tree growing in the zoo grounds. It turned into a bit of a waiting game, and he came down when he was hungry. Now he’s made his point, he’s perfectly happy.”
Ian’s responsibilities include the RAG (red, amber, green) matrix for the different risk levels presented by different potential “escapees.” Escaped lions, gorillas, and drill monkeys are at the top of the red risk tree, while most other primates fall into the amber category. Interestingly, reptiles, are classified as green on the risk register because they are easier to capture. Of course, escapes are very rare, but regular drills are conducted, and the zoo has its own firearms team on site who are all fully licensed by Avon and Somerset Police. It is Ian’s responsibility to make sure that all escape scenarios are fully risk assessed, and that the marksmen team’s training is completely up to date.
Next on his list of daily tasks includes staff welfare, where he takes on a listening role to address any concerns with a view to finding resolutions. He said, “This is not what you would call a normal job. [Personnel] are involved in all aspects of the animals’ welfare. Preparing [the animals’] food, for example, they may cut their fingers or may raise issues about working at height or accessing or exiting an animal enclosure. We need to know that the staff are following the correct procedures and have the ability to easily evacuate an enclosure. To feed some of the animals involves getting up close while maintaining a safe distance. Everyone who works here undergoes a two-day induction, which includes health and safety on the first day, which is annually refreshed with additional training on working at height and chainsaw instructions, for example.”
A zoo is like a small town with various industries on site. It has carpenters, electricians, maintenance staff, and a fully operational animal hospital capable of carrying out a wide range of veterinary procedures, the safe operation of which all comes under Ian’s remit. The hospital includes a fully equipped operating table where a Caesarean section was performed on a gorilla last year.
“We have long-standing and strong relationships with all the emergency services and the environmental health department, and we continuously review our risk assessments in order to operate complete safe systems of working,” Ian said.
Ian’s view of zoos has also been completely changed. “People think of zoos as places to see exotic animals, which is true, but the view that they are captured and contained could not be further from the truth. The whole ethos of Bristol Zoo today is all about conservation, and none of their animals are captured from the wild. In fact, the Society is part of a successful worldwide breeding programme. It is about protecting endangered species, whether that is animals or plants, from around the world.”
As well as caring for rare animals, the zoo is a centre of excellence for plant preservation as part of its world-leading role in maintaining delicate ecosystems and has its own expansive nurseries for a wide range of creatures including insects. Bristol Zoological Society employs around 250 staff and 300 volunteers as part of its mission of “Saving Wildlife Together.” This has never been more prescient as climate change and human intervention around the globe has disrupted and destroyed natural habitats so that wildlife, flora, and fauna become endangered or extinct. This was recently highlighted as huge bush fires swept across large swathes of south-east Australia where the wildlife that survived cannot be sustained because of the widespread destruction of their habitats. Since it opened to the public in 1836, Bristol Zoo has helped save over 175 species from extinction through breeding programmes, established over thirty field conservation and research projects all over the world, showed 40 million school-age children the value of nature, and given more than 90 million visitors a great day out.
Many of the risk assessments have to be dynamic, developed in situ from learnings in country. Prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, Ian was scheduled to visit many of the zoo’s conservation programmes overseas to understand first-hand the kinds of risks involved.
“Our job is a watching and learning brief but with the view that we provide advice to encourage safe welfare in breeding programmes, for example,” Ian said. “Although the teams are working with wild animals in the field where conditions may be unstable, we must assist in mitigating the risk.” Many of the conservation programmes are also closer to home and involve working with indigenous species. The Bristol Zoo team is involved in saving the UK’s white-clawed crayfish from extinction and an endangered species of snail, which they hope to be able to release back into its own natural environment soon.
Ian continued, “The staff member I replaced here had been at Bristol for many years, and he had really paved the way for his successor. So apart from being a very fast learner, I have been very lucky indeed. But when you come in with a fresh set of eyes, you are always going to spot areas that can be improved, and I am delighted that my suggestions have been welcomed with open arms. The management also operates an open-door policy where concerns can be aired.
“I encourage that approach as well. I want people to come and talk to me about anything they are concerned about. I’m not here to say no but to work collaboratively with the teams to keep everyone safe. Some of the risks here are always going to be risks by the nature of what we do. We have dangerous and often unpredictable animals here. But if you are fully aware of those risks and put in the correct control procedures, you take away many of the concerns.”
Whatever the task or the challenge, Ian has made the zoo his own natural habitat and has been learning from the past as well as the present, in order to maintain health and safety standards in the future. There is a rich archive of materials around the foundation of the zoo and its driving ethos that is still relevant today in terms of bringing people and animals closer together in order to promote education over entertainment.
The Bristol Clifton and West of England Zoological Society opened its doors to the public on Monday, 11 July 1836. It was the realisation of a vision for physician Henry Riley who wanted to “facilitate the observation of habits, form, and structure of the animal kingdom as well as afford rational amusement and recreation to visitors of the neighbourhood.”
The mission attracted wild enthusiasm and prominent sponsors. One of the early shareholders was engineer and famous Bristolian Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the man who gave the world the iconic SS Great Britain and the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which is located close to the Zoo Gardens in leafy and well-heeled Clifton, a stone’s throw from the university, which shares academic links with the zoo. In the early days, the city’s location as one of the world’s busiest trading ports helped greatly with the acquisition of animals.
Zebi, the zoo’s first elephant, was at Bristol from 1868 to 1909 where she was famous for removing and eating the straw hats of the Victorian and Edwardian visitors. Today, split between the twelve-acre Zoo Gardens in Clifton and the larger Wild Place Project, which accommodates the larger animals, elephants no longer roam across the “south-west Savannah” as the modern zoo chose to shake off the industry’s legacy of rides and customer amusement and replace it with the more serious focus of research and conservation projects. These academic pursuits still happily coexist with being one of the UK’s top visitor attractions outside of London.
The elephant’s place has been taken by cheetahs, geladas, giraffes, zebras, lemurs, and okapis at Wild Place Project, the larger zoo close to, but protected from, the M5 motorway. Opened in 2013, only forty acres of the Wild Place’s 136 acres have so far been developed. In July 2019, Wild Place Project opened Bear Wood, its most ambitious exhibit to date, which is home to Eurasian brown bears, lynxes, wolverines, and wolves, and tells the story of the UK’s ancient woodland and the charismatic species that once inhabited it. Bear Wood is a more interactive space, and guests are encouraged to help to get involved with the conservation and protection of endangered species and the habitats in which they live.
Wild Place Project is also home to Camp Baboon, which offers ten wood lodges for visitors to stay close to nature and where they can learn wildcrafting and building a campfire away from the daily twenty-first century pressures. Again, ensuring this “back-to-nature” project meets the relevant safety criteria forms part of Ian’s remit.
Whatever the future plans look like, Wild Place Project has a specific focus on many threatened habitats around the globe, including Madagascar, Cameroon, and the Congo. An early adopter of conservation principles, the Zoological Society has successfully bred many species over the years, including Adam, the first chimpanzee to be conceived and born in captivity in Europe in 1934. And since the early endorsement of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the zoo has attracted a number of celebrity supporters, including TV naturalist Professor David Bellamy who opened the new aquarium in 1986, Sir David Attenborough, Professor Alice Roberts, and most recently Kate Humble, who is backing the Bristol Zoological Society Appeal launched following the closure of both sites.
A menagerie of creatures was also made famous through the BBC’s Animal Magic TV show hosted by the children’s presenter Johnny Morris, who gave pleasure to millions of viewers with his comedic voices of the animal kingdom in more than 400 episodes between 1962 and 1983. During almost two decades, animals were often taken by car to the BBC studios on Bristol’s Whiteladies Road, proving that the animals always were the dominant celebrity in the British psyche.
In 2013, the Gorilla House, attached to the zoo’s famous Gorilla Island, was rebuilt for £1 million to exhibit the growing family of primates. It includes a 180-degree guest viewing platform that uses toughened glass to support the thirty-two-stone male silverback Jock as he and the bigger troop move above the heads of the visitors. Jock, now forty years old, is still hugely popular, although he is described by many staff as a “curmudgeonly old man,” possibly because he has recently seen a female from the troop moved to Madrid zoo as part of its long-term breeding plans.
Jock is a later successor to silverback Alfred, a famous resident from the 1930s whose image still adorns the wall at the entrance to the Gorilla Island enclosure and is famous throughout Bristol. When he arrived, gorillas were rarely seen, and when they did appear, they rarely survived for long. Alfred proved that notion wrong. During World War II under heavy bombardment during the Blitz, he was transformed into a Churchillian poster boy for endurance, resilience, and bloody-minded resistance. His food, like those of human Bristolians, was rationed, and US GIs sent postcards of him home to their families by the thousands. In Professor Flack’s book, he wrote that newspapers in Australia and New Zealand commented on Alfred’s life when he became internationally known as the “Dictator of Bristol,” leading the city’s wartime resistance from this home front.
Ian Pogue’s “never two days the same” comment refers to the massive risk portfolio involved in maintaining high levels of health and safety and minimising risk. This is no mean feat, both at the society’s multi-acre locations and the numerous overseas animal conservation partnerships around the world.
The society’s vision—“for wildlife to be a part of everyone’s life and for people to want to protect wildlife now and for the future”—involves ninety-three coordinated breeding programmes for threatened wildlife species to date, as well as fourteen field conservation projects in ten countries that conserve and protect some of the world’s most endangered species.
This international reach means Ian’s risk assessment remit stretches well beyond his immediate Bristol environs. Bristol Zoo Gardens is a member of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA), which represents more than 100 member collections and promotes the values of good zoos and aquariums, and a member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA) and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). Zoos are largely self-regulating, but being members of these governing bodies ensures that all zoos comply with internationally recognised welfare rules when it comes to their main purpose—the conservation and welfare of animals and plant life.
Bristol Zoological Society relies on income from visitors and supporters to continue its important work, which during a global pandemic has made its global conservation mission more challenging as it contemplates the impact of a 2020 revenue drop. Visitor numbers are likely to be well short of the 830,000 who visited the Zoo Gardens and the Wild Place last year. Ian’s remit also includes extra revenue boosting initiatives, including managing the health and safety arrangements for attractions such as the Leap of Faith, a climbing experience that is operated by an external contractor at Wild Place Project. Bristol Zoo in recent years has also become the focus of other events, including being licensed for weddings where the guests can visit all the facilities on site, again, throwing a risk-planning curve ball in Ian’s direction.
In his previous life, Ian was familiar with cat walks and high streets, a world he has swapped for walking on the wilder side of life. He now manages risk and danger balanced with preserving animal and plant life and the exotic habitats and ecosystems that support them, not just in Bristol but also the wider UK and all around the world.