The future looks bleak for Pooh's original home

July 07, 1991|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- Somewhere, wherever fictional characters rest, the ghost of Christopher Robin is turning in his grave. How could they do this to Winnie the Pooh's old home?

"Everybody's rather depressed," said Mary Elgin, a volunteer at the London Zoo.

"The future looks extremely bleak," laments Tony Elischer, who runs a fund-raising campaign to save the venerable institution.

"Who could imagine London without London Zoo?" asks Michael Ricketts, the senior education officer at the zoo.

Even the llamas look glum, the emus sulky. Only the sea lions are buoyant, splashing around in their pond, waiting for dinner. They obviously don't understand the situation.

"This is the mother of all zoos!" exclaims Ms. Elgin: "The only place children can see exotic animals. Why, some of the children who come here have never even seen a cow."

The children crowded round on every side one recent Sunday. And neither cows, koalas, nor Cape buffalo are they likely to see come October if the zoo cannot come up with a large infusion of cash to keep going.

"The worst-case scenario is that on Sept. 30 the zoo will close," said Mr. Elischer. "We are looking into other options -- joint business ventures, philanthropy."

So how did this situation develop at what is one of the oldest formal zoo in the world?

Founded in 1826 by Sir Stamford Raffles, who stimulated the growth of Singapore and left his name on one of the world's great hotels there, the London Zoo sprawls over 36 acres of London's Regent's Park and holds more than 8,000 animals.

It is more than a collection of ponds and cages, sinuous boating canals and soaring aviaries. According to the zoo spokeswoman, Gina Dobson, it stands third among all the zoos in the world in the amount of animal and habitat conservation work it does; it has more than 30 separate projects going on around the world.

The zoo also has an educational dimension, grouping 140 volunteers, or docents. There is much gloom in their ranks, according to Mr. Ricketts. "They are all going around saying, 'How on earth could any sane government let a place like London Zoo close?' "

But as with many other large urban institutions that enhance city life, the London Zoo is suffering from neglect of maintenance, some opposition from animal rights people who believe that wild animals should be left in the wild, and, more important, a shortage of operating funds.

The zoo takes in $12.5 million a year in admission fees (stiff at $9.50 per adult ticket) and needs $15.3 million to operate. This has been more or less the story since the early 1980s, but now time has just about run out. The zoo has appealed for money to keep going to the Department of Environment, which will make a decision by July 9.

Whatever the outcome, the zoo is going to be a different place in years to come. About 90 of the staff of 300 are expected to be laid off, and perhaps a third of the animals moved to other places. The zoo will be redesigned for the remaining animals into a place more closely resembling their natural habitat, with a rain forest for elephants and gorillas and mountain terraces for pandas.

All this, of course, will depend on whether or not the Zoological Society, which runs the place, can secure the necessary $85 million to do the work. If it can't, and the government does not come through, the gates will close Sept. 30.

In the meantime, the staff is nervous, the volunteers -- who teach zoo patrons about the physiology of exotic animals and the evils of the smugglers of protected species, such as lacquered turtles and stuffed crocodiles -- are grimly hopeful. Some have difficulty believing that the end could come.

"People around here think something will happen at the last minute," said Rod Humby, busily demonstrating to a group of children the advantages of the camel's flat feet for walking in the sand and the deer's hoofed foot for moving in the forest.

"How could they do this to the place where Pooh bear came from?" Ms. Eglin said with near-genuine indignation, referring to the American black bear cub left at the zoo by a Canadian army officer in 1914 before he headed off to the front.

The bear was born in Winnipeg -- hence its name -- and it managed to capture the imagination of A. A. Milne, who created the characters Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin for his son.

For American children of an earlier generation, perhaps not raised on the Milne stories, this was the home of the most famous real elephant in the world. He was an 11-foot-tall giant born in 1865 who grew tired of carrying children around in the zoo and decided to break into show business, which he did with the P. T. Barnum circus.

It is because of him that we refer to everything from oversized airplanes to extra-large soap boxes as jumbo.

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