Cash-strapped Glasgow Zoo is laying off its staff and finding alternative homes for as many of its animals as it can. Children can also be counted as victims of its closure, writes Douglas Blane
One of the llamas at Glasgow Zoo is taking a keen interest in the children peering through the fence that surrounds her grassy enclosure. As soon as she saw them, her ears pricked up and she strolled across for a closer look.
While they debate what kind of beast she is, her gentle eyes with their long white lashes turn with interest to each speaker.
"It's a camel."
"Nah, it hasn't got humps. It's a big goat."
"Well I think it's a wee giraffe."
In normal times, information on the animals would be posted outside their enclosures, but these are not normal times for Glasgow Zoo. It is set to close in September amid much rancour and recriminations.
The animal rights activists whose sustained campaign against the zoo played a big part in its demise seem the only winners. The animals are being destroyed or moved out of their homes, the staff are out of work, and west of Scotland children may never see lions, bears or rhinos up close and personal again. For Stephen Bostock, a teacher, writer and recently retired education officer at Glasgow Zoo, this is the saddest aspect of the sad story.
"Of course you can watch animals on film and television, or read about them in books, and that can be educational and informative. But there is nothing to beat the impact of an encounter with a live animal.
"I've lost count of the number of times we took an animal from the zoo into schools for the kids to see and touch; a snake, a tarantula, a small mammal. They always created great excitement. No matter how many wildlife programmes you watch, there is something special about meeting a live animal."
Given Dr Bostock's education and background - classics, teaching and a degree in zoology and philosophy - his views on the morality of zoos are well-informed and coherent but they are surprising.
"Animals possess rights (in my view) because of their nature as conscious beings," he writes in his 1993 book Zoos and Animal Rights: the ethics of keeping animals. "Individual animals claim our respect because they can feel, suffer pain and experience pleasure and because, in short, it matters to them how they are treated."
So why would anyone who believes in animal rights work for 25 years in institutions that seem to infringe them?
Unlike many supporters of zoos, Dr Bostock finds justification for their existence neither in education nor in conservation ("safeguarding many large vertebrate species in a world overrun by one"). Enormously valuable though both functions are, to an advocate of animal rights neither is sufficient. "Animals should not be confined in zoos for any reasons, including education, if by confined we understand kept in a way that does not ensure their well-being," he believes. Anything less, makes the education morally unjustified, as well as vitiated by "the additional message that it is acceptable to confine animals in poor conditions for our convenience".
The essential point is that good zoos respect the rights of animals. Even the best don't succeed all the time, but they keep trying and they keep improving. In this regard Glasgow Zoo was a good one, as the awards and commendations it received over the years testify.
"I've been a member of Advocates for Animals for a long time," says Dr Bostock. "When they mounted a campaign against the zoo, I thought I'd better go back and take a look. If what they were saying was true, it must have deteriorated badly since director Richard O'Grady died so suddenly at his desk in 2001.
"I walked around and tried to look at the place through a stranger's eyes.
It was obvious that money was tight and there was paint peeling from some of the walls. But I found the same concern for the welfare of animals there has always been. I could see no signs of neglect or ill treatment. I believe the campaign to close the zoo was malicious and dishonest."
When the zoo does close, he says, the educational loss to the west of Scotland will be immense. He talks of the "biological, emotional, moral, even spiritual enrichment" that animals bring to people, especially young people in cities.
The ability to foster interest in other living things and empathy for them is the most valuable educational role of any zoo, he believes. "It is a conservational role because such empathy and appreciation are a source of concern for the conservation of animals in their natural habitats."
Something inside us all responds in a positive way to animals but for children with special needs the impact is often more profound.
"At the children's farm in the zoo, the youngsters could handle and work with animals, and they loved it," says Dr Bostock.
"Advocates for Animals recently commented favourably on the story of a boy with learning difficulties who had benefited enormously from swimming with dolphins. But that's just one example of an effect you get with all sorts of animals.
"I remember teachers saying to me, after we'd given a talk at the zoo or in school with one of our animals: 'That's the first time I've seen that boy taking an interest and getting involved with his classmates.'
"It's a great shame the zoo is going to close and all that will be lost."
Meanwhile, the children at the zoo have moved on from the llamas and past the peacocks that are strutting around as if they own the place.
"I think that one just laid an egg in the grass, Mum," says one child.
"I don't think so, honey; it's a boy bird."
Inside the tropical house, brightly coloured macaws are flying around before perching on high branches and screeching raucously at each other and the visitors. Even the tortoises, their cold-blooded metabolisms quickened by the sun, are taking a keen interest in the world around them and peering with their black eyes at the visitors before trotting back to their companions.
"Why are the tortoises going so fast?" a little girl in a pink dress asks anyone in general. But only a handful of staff remain at the zoo and there is no one around to tell her.
Zoos and Animal Rights: the ethics of keeping animals by Stephen St C.
Bostock, Routledge 1993
A BRIEF HISTORY
December 15, 1936: The Zoological Society of Glasgow, "the principal object of which is the founding of a zoological park in the city", is formed at a meeting at Glasgow University.
June 1938: An appeal is launched by the society, which by this time has 500 members, to raise funds to establish a zoological gardens in Glasgow.
December 1938: Having raised pound;5,000, the society takes an option on Calderpark Estate.
September 1939: Progress is halted by the outbreak of war but plans to keep the society active include meetings, lectures and "cinematographic displays".
January 1941: Half of Calderpark Estate is producing crops and grazing cattle in the war effort; elsewhere willow, birch and fir trees have been planted widely.
January 1945: Glasgow University engineering students begin construction work at the zoo, excavating a lions' den, a bear pit and a road.
July 9, 1947: Calderpark Zoo finally opens with more than 150 animals, including lions, wallabies, monkeys, Soay sheep and parrots. The Glasgow Herald reports on the "great army of 130,000 Glasgow schoolchildren who, with the 80,000 in Lanarkshire, would provide a ready-made clientele".
July 1947: Between Wednesday and Sunday of the opening week, 36,000 visitors pass through the gates of Calderpark Zoo. "On Sunday, thousands of people had to be turned away."
June 1989: Glasgow Zoo receives the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare Award for its Himalayan black bear enclosure. The award is in recognition of exhibits that allow animals to live in good health with a natural lifestyle and a complex and stimulating environment, while allowing the public to observe and understand their needs.
1991: Glasgow Zoo is featured on the cover of New Scientist and in Colin Tudge's book Last Animals at the Zoo: how mass extinction can be stopped (Radius) for its innovative work on simulating the natural environment for its big carnivores.