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Belfast Zoo on a steep slope literally and financially - things must change

Published 02/06/2016

Killian McCandless (6), his sister Emily (5) and their father Peter feed the giraffes at Belfast Zoo
Killian McCandless (6), his sister Emily (5) and their father Peter feed the giraffes at Belfast Zoo

When John Gray wrote an article for the magazine of the Cave Hill Conservation Campaign questioning the future of Belfast Zoo, the last thing he expected was to resign from a body he co-founded after it refused to run his piece. This is the 'censored' article published for first time.

In January the Belfast Telegraph headlined its account of a report presented to Belfast City Council's growth and regeneration committee 'Fears over future of Belfast Zoo'. The paper took its cue from Ulster Unionist councillor Chris McGimpsey - a long-standing critic of the zoo - who, apart from condemning losses running at £2m a year, raised more fundamental issues, arguing "zoos are a thing of the past" and no better than "Victorian peep shows".

He added: "We are taking animals that normally have been on flat land and we stick them on a hill... in areas which are just too small. It is virtually impossible to run a zoo without there being massive concerns about animal welfare."

The recurrent loss on the zoo's operations in 2014-2015 was £1,080,259, but capital depreciation of around £570,000 and other support services and property maintenance charges make up McGimpsey's total of a £2m-a-year loss.

The council's business manager agrees this is "unsustainable". Yet, other councillors are hardly onboard for closure. Rather, they have approved a plan to reduce the deficit by 30% over three years. As the detail is opaque, it seems unlikely it will fare better than similar initiatives over the years.

Like drowning men (and women), they can reach for rescue as even Chris McGimpsey does - and that is the hope that funding support might be secured from the Government.

This is the pursuit of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Attempts in this direction have consistently failed since the 1950s, and in the age of austerity have no hope of success.

In fact, zoo performance over the last three years has been relatively static. Indeed, to take just one statistic - visitor numbers - these have shown an increase to 253,560. Yet, in 2009-10, numbers had reached 304,000, so the long-term trajectory may still be downwards.

Other devastating comparative statistics given to that January meeting fundamentally call into question the viability of the zoo.

Rated against nine others, it has by far the lowest visitor numbers, the lowest income, the most limited opening hours and the lowest income per visitor.

The temptation might be to conclude that these failings arise because of, for example, marketing, but conclusions of this sort evade the possibility it is too small to flourish.

This is a useful point at which to consider the chequered history of the zoo and how, in certain respects, history is repeating itself.

The zoo was established in 1933 as a mere menagerie hired from Messrs G B Chapman - "the largest dealers and importers of animals and birds in the world and circus proprietors". After enormous initial success it was expanded in 1934.

In 1941 the larger animals were shot as a wartime safety measure and Messrs Chapman gave up the management because of cross-channel travel difficulties. Thus it became a corporation-owned zoo purely by accident of war. Post-war ambitions to improve zoo conditions fell foul of falling visitor numbers and increased deficits.

By 1965 even the city veterinarian J F Gracey admitted that "as far as standards are concerned, there is no doubt that it would not meet the required level".

Later in the year Reginald Wesley, director of parks, noted that "the one point on which everyone will agree (is that) the site is unkind to animals, plants, staff and visitors alike".

One option was closure. Another was to seek Government support for an 'Ulster Zoo' on an alternative site in Dunmurry. In 1968 the Government refused all funding.

Logic, then, should have suggested closure. Instead the option of relocation to Hazelwood emerged. This, although higher than Bellevue, was portrayed as a climatic paradise; it was "above the limit of the winter mists and fogs" and "because of the proximity of Belfast Lough, there was no tendency for frost pockets to develop".

Why did a grandiose scheme for a new zoo on a still fundamentally unsuitable site develop? Part of it was a matter of municipal pride.

Councillors on the new Belfast City Council had been stripped of most of their powers. The zoo was still theirs and had a certain talismanic significance. Also, under direct rule, there were far better prospects of Government funding.

It was to be needed. Between 1973 and 1983 costs exploded almost ten-fold, from £750,000 to £7,393,840, and no final cost for the whole venture can easily be found. Nor had any attempt been made to define what the role of the expanded zoo was to be. It was only in 1992 that conservation and education were added to its priorities.

The assumption that the new zoo would cover its operating costs was wishful thinking. As early as 1995 the deficit in the preceding year reached £1,726,430, including £577,620 in loan charges. By 2003 it had increased to £1,800,000.

Attempts to develop the serious purposes of the zoo seem to have made little headway. Proposals in 1979 that the botany and zoology departments of the Ulster Museum should move to the Floral Hall, and in 1999 that Queen's University should occupy it for various educational purposes, came to nothing. The zoo's educational role is mostly limited to facilitating primary school visits.

It is more difficult to assess the importance of the zoo's conservation role. Do its breeding programmes play a significant part in the preservation of rare species? Or would these endeavours be better undertaken elsewhere?

A 2005 report criticised the lack of focus on "indigenous species", but it was too late to prevent the ill-advised sale of the zoo's herd of rare breeds of native cattle, which had also grazed the wider hill.

Subsequently the zoo has engaged in commendable initiatives in the field, including a red squirrel breeding programme, but these hardly require a whole zoo apparatus.

In the meantime the new zoo has led to permanent loss. The use of Hazelwood as a pay-in, fenced-off zone closed off the old walking route of access from the north. The alternative dog-in-the-manger path along the Hazelwood escarpment subsequently slid into oblivion and has not been replaced.

And if the zoo in its present form closed, what then? Is this really to think the unthinkable? We should remember that Bellevue and Hazelwood operated very successfully as a "pleasure garden" and with a variety of attractions before the arrival of the menagerie and then the zoo.

If the main zoo closed the entire Bellevue/Hazelwood area could be opened up to free public access again with a pick-and-mix variety of pay-in attractions. This could include a smaller children's zoo, a teenage adventure facility, including a zip-wire feature, or even a ski slope and perhaps a craft village.

Some of these facilities could be provided on a private concession basis, though there would be resolute and justified resistance to any attempt to sell off any part of the site for hotel or property development. The possibilities are, in any case, endless and might actually earn revenue.

The through walking route from the north would be opened up again, and walkers would become users of cafes and shop facilities. Prospects of finding a viable use for the Floral Hall would be vastly improved if it was no longer cut off behind the zoo's pay-in perimeter.

Yes, Chris McGimpsey's critique of the zoo needs to be taken seriously. Some will agree with his animal rights perspective. Can those "unsustainable" losses be cut back, or is the zoo actually too small to have any prospect of viability?

Are the slopes of the Cave Hill the best place for breeding exotic rare breeds? And do we need the whole zoo in order to encourage native breeds?

These are some of the hard questions that need to be asked. Worst of all would be a continued fudge, and it must be a matter of concern that the council is contemplating new capital expenditure at the zoo before any review has been undertaken, let alone completed.

It is time to open up this debate.

John Gray is a former librarian of the Linen Hall Library in Belfast and was, until May 2016, on the committee of the Cave Hill Conservation Campaign, an organisation which, as the Save the Cave Hill Conservation Campaign, he had co-founded in 1989

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