We closed a zoo! Now what to do with the 10,000 animals needing a new home...

The decision to shut Bristol Zoo has thrown up the ultimate in relocation challenges

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The giant sign across the front doors of the UK's Bristol Zoo Gardens says: “We are now closed. Thank you for all your support over the last 186 years.”

The zoo, one of the oldest in the world, has shut its doors to the public but, for the moment, most of the 10,000 or so inhabitants remain, along with the Herculean task of relocating them all — from a family of gorillas to, as it turns out, rather a lot of millipedes.

In its final days earlier this month, thousands of Bristolians flocked to the site, reliving memories that for many stretched over generations.

None has a stronger connection than Richard Clarke. His great-great-great (“and possibly another great in there”, he says) grandfather was one of the original 120 shareholders when the zoo was founded in 1835.

In the 1920s, in the depths of the Great Depression, his grandfather Dr Richard Clarke took over the zoo, introducing many innovations in animal care and conservation, including gorilla management.

Now an ambassador for the zoo, the grandson sits on a bench in the late summer sunshine and watches the last children gaze in awe at the Asiatic lions or coo over a pair of adorable red pandas.

The passing, he says, “evokes deep feelings”.

“But the other side of the coin is that from a conservation point of view, it was an easy decision to make.”

Mr Clarke is referring to The Wild Place Project, a conservation park in the Gloucestershire countryside right outside Bristol, in the west of England, that will take the zoo's place.

The Wild Place has about 52 hectares — a major jump from the previous five — and will focus more on endangered species.

“A lot of the old buildings here are not really fit for purpose,” Mr Clarke says.

The reality is that the era of such inner-city establishments, with their original aim to entertain as much as educate, is coming to an end.

The Dubai zoo moved from a cramped site in Jumeirah to the new Dubai Safari Park in 2017 for much the same reason.

Rachel Moore counts the penguins during one of the annual New Year stocktakes of animals, ranging from tiny leaf insects to Jock the 150-kilogram male lowland gorilla. Getty

At London Zoo, many of the older buildings, such as the Lion House, aquarium or the celebrated Berthold Lubetkin-designed Penguin Pool, are protected as structures of historical and architectural importance.

But they are no longer suitable for housing wild creatures, and so stand empty.

The same can be said for Bristol Zoo Gardens, its full title, which opened in 1836 and was the fifth oldest in the world.

The 19th-century Bear Pit, Monkey Temple and Eagle Aviary have all been given listed building status and will survive the closure as the site is repurposed, but it has been many years since they held animals.

The public’s appetite for animals in captivity has changed, and spectacles such as the chimpanzee’s tea party and elephant rides now seem not only anachronistic but cruel.

Attendance at Bristol, the unprecedented flurry of late interest aside, has been declining for years, and the pandemic, which brought enforced closures and laid off staff, was the final nail in the coffin.

Bristol Zoological Society, which runs both sites, made the decision to relocate to The Wild Place in late 2020.

The animals from Bristol Zoo Gardens that meet the conservation criteria are moving to The Wild Place project eight kilometres away in south Gloucestershire, while others less endangered are given new homes elsewhere.

More than 300 species of animals were on display at the city centre zoo but only about 80 will be at the new site eight kilometres away, where animals will live in a larger and more natural environment.

That has meant rehousing most of the creatures in zoos and wildlife parks as far away as Spain and the US.

“We are getting rid of animals that are of lowest concern for conservation and that will allow us to do more of the conservation work, which is what we are famous for,” says Brian Zimmerman, director of conservation and science.

“Animal welfare is our top priority. We have really high standards and part of the reason we are moving to this site is so that we can improve on welfare.

"The enclosures are designed to the highest standard possible and are being built in nature rather than artificially created.”

Some of the world’s top animal transporters are being employed. The giraffes have already gone to The Wild Place in special trailers with adjustable-height roofs — and a careful eye to avoid low bridges.

The paddlefish, which commonly reach three metres in length, are going to Valencia, another challenge because of the distance and their size.

A special mention must go to the red-legged millipedes, tiny arthropods which, despite their name, do not have 1,000 legs. But there are a lot of them — Bristol Zoo estimated about 2,500.

Laura Graham, the animal registrar, picks up what happened when their time came to depart.

“We often get the question of what’s the most difficult animal to move and people always think about lions and larger species,” Ms Graham says. “But the most numerous animals can also be the most challenging.

“Three months after the last count, when we went to move the millipedes on, we found that they had been breeding amazingly well so they had multiplied to 9,327.

“We went from planning to move them in a smaller zoo car to actually using our large transport vehicle with very large containers.”

Happy 94th birthday to Sir David Attenborough. 🎉 We were so excited to welcome him to the Zoo a few years ago. A true legend! 💚👏🙌

Posted by Bristol Zoo Gardens on Friday, May 8, 2020

Fortunately, the millipedes’ new home at Marwell Zoo in England’s Hampshire has a large tropical house and was happy to accept the growing family.

While the public have now left, it will be some time before the last animals do so. The zoo says that none will have to be put to sleep, although the 25 species of butterflies will not be moving on.

The insect’s lifespan of only a few weeks means nature will take care of that.

The keepers have been preparing for closure since the moment the news was announced.

“Being 186 years old, we have a lot of contacts in the zoo industry,” Ms Graham says.

“It’s been a challenge but we’re definitely getting there. It’s so valuable when you see those animals in their new enclosures and going on to have offspring of their own.”

Visitors on closing day relax around the centrepiece of the final summer programme called ‘Wilder’, a specially commissioned interactive gorilla sculpture, which is taller than the largest giraffe ever recorded, and as wide as three king-size beds. PA

Bristol Zoo has an international reputation for its work on endangered species and the expertise of its breeding programmes.

It was one of the first in the world to breed lemurs in captivity and it saw the first chimpanzee born in Europe as far back as 1934. In 2016, a baby gorilla was born by Caesarean section.

About 80 per cent of the animals in The Wild Place have links to conservation projects, including a breeding pair of black rhinos, expected to be one of the big draws when the new wildlife park officially opens in 2024.

The stars of the show, though, will be the family of western lowland gorilla, led by the silverback adult male, Jock. There are also three females, and their offspring of two daughters and two sons.

The gorillas will be the last to leave the old zoo. At present, they have a concrete and glass indoor enclosure and a moated outdoor area constrained by the size of the current site.

A much larger home will be built at The Wild Place, using land that is forested.

“We’re really lucky the area that they are going to has already got quite a lot of established trees,” says Lynsey Bugg, the zoo’s curator of mammals. “It’s a really lovely way for them to live outside.”

A plaque before its unveiling at Bristol Zoo Gardens on its last day open to the public as the attraction is set to move to south Gloucestershire. PA
Updated: September 16, 2022, 10:22 PM