The Zoo comes to ITV1

by Lisa McGarry

A brand new three part documentary series for ITV1 explores the world’s oldest zoo, bringing a unique insight into the rich variety of daily life for the staff and animals at London Zoo.

For the first time in ten years cameras have been given access all areas at the zoo in Regent’s Park, and its ‘country home’ at Whipsnade, for a behind the scenes look at the life and death stories for The Zoo.

Episode One:

Gorilla keeper Dan Simmonds gave up a hugely well paid job as a city trader to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition to work with gorillas in ZSL London Zoo’s showcase exhibit Gorilla Kingdom, which cost £5million to build.

“I used to be really money motivated, and the city is a great place to make loads of money. It was all very exciting. You might be driving a Porsche, have a lovely house, and yet practically spend all your time in the office and hate your job.

“I would much rather do something I enjoy and have fewer flash toys to show for it. I love my job. I say it so many times it is like a boring broken record. Some of the novelty of my very first day at the zoo I still get today.”

The gorillas are key to the zoo’s future, especially after the sudden death of Bobby, the silverback last year. The arrival of a new male, Yeboah, a young western lowland gorilla, brought new hope. He mated with two of the three females Effie, Zaire and Mjukuu. Mjukuu is now pregnant. If all goes well her baby will be the first the zoo has had for 22 years.

Dan recalls the embarrassment of having to go to his local supermarket to buy pregnancy testing kits to discover whether any of his charges were pregnant.

“How awkward was it for me to go to Sainsbury’s and buy 15 pregnancy testing kits at one time. I felt like a very nervous father, or a very very nervous boyfriend waiting to see if the tests were positive.

“The test showed two lines so we have a pregnant gorilla.”

The two lines on the pregnancy kit represent new hope for the Gorilla Kingdom: a new baby will change the dynamics among the animals just like a new baby in a human family. More importantly for the zoo a baby gorilla will increase visitor numbers, which raises more money for conservation.

But there’s heartbreak for Dan as Yeboah becomes critically ill. The last male gorilla Bobby died of heart failure, a common problem for adult silverbacks. The vet confirms Yeboah is showing similar symptoms as Bobby suffered.

The entire team fights to save Yeboah. Dan says tearfully: “We tried everything we could to save him. I love all the animals I work with. We work so hard for them, and if they die it is really hard.”

The bigger picture is – that the Zoological Society of London is a wildlife conservation charity without government funding – it needs to generate £40 million a year to continue the conservation work it does around the world.

Every commercial opportunity is exploited and even the least popular animals are turned into money spinners. The Zoo offers a special course to arachnophobics. The film shows a group undergoing hypnosis to try to cure them of their fear of spiders. Spider lover Dave Clarke who has looked after bugs at the zoo for 20 years organises the courses, with the hope that if people overcome their fear they will not kill spiders.

The course is conducted by hypnotist John Clifford, has raised more than £4,000 for the zoo, and boasts an 80 per cent success rate. Everybody has to attempt to hold Polly the tarantula in the palm of their hands at the end of the course, a moment caught on camera to prove what they have achieved.

One of the women attending the course, Alethea, shows her terror as she approaches the bug house, and breaks down in tears. But after the course she steels herself to hold Polly in outstretched palms.

“I never thought I would ever do that,” she says.

The Zoo’s director is David Field who has a life-long passion for animals. His first love is a chimpanzee called Coco who he has known since he was 12 and volunteered for work at Dudley Zoo.

The famous chimpanzees’ tea parties which were a highlight for visitors to ZSL London Zoo no longer take place, and Coco’s home is now at Whipsnade.

“When I am having a bad day at the zoo I come to see Coco, my best confidante, and talk about it,” says David.

“All the keepers form close attachments to the animals. They become part of their families.”

In the Bird House there’s concern for a young penguin, which had to be nurtured by keeper Tim Savage when its parents abandoned it. The vet has noticed a problem with the penguin’s posture. The result of an x-ray will decide its fate. A deformed penguin will be bullied and attacked by the others in the group. Tim and the vet Taina Strike have to decide what would be the kindest action for the little penguin.

Head of Birds Adrian Walls is trying to raise a King Vulture chick. Each time one hatches the parents swoop in and eat it. Adrian and his team are determined to rescue one and rear it themselves. They monitor the Vulture house, and as soon as the egg hatches they race to claim the chick before the parents can get to it. But as Adrian looks into the nest he realises their efforts have once again been thwarted. He was just seconds too late.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010, 8:00PM – 9:00PM