London Zoo sits astride the Regent's Canal in Regent's Park, between Camden Town and St. John's Wood. It has one of the most famous collections of animals in the world: around 8,000 exotic birds, reptiles, mammals, amphibians and insects live in its 36 acres of land, under the care of the Zoological Society of London.

The Society was founded in 1826 by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (the founder of Singapore) with the mission of 'teaching and elucidating zoology'. The zoo, his conception, was completed in 1827, not long after his death, and opened to members of the Society in 1828. Charles Darwin joined in 1831 and was a regular visitor to the apes, especially the orang-utan, the first ever seen in Europe. In 1846 the zoo opened its grounds to the public, who, before the turn of the century, would have been able to visit some wonderfully rare beasts including the Arabian oryx, the greater kudus, the Indian and Sumatran rhinoceros, the aye aye, and animals now extinct, such as the quagga and the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger. The zoo became hugely popular and so did some of the animals: one of the nineteenth century's favourite characters was Jumbo the elephant, who arrived as a baby and turned into a huge, cantankerous six-ton beast. There was a national outcry when Jumbo was sold to Barnum and Bailey's circus for £2,000, a considerable amount of cash at the time. More recent zoo stars included the giant pandas Ching-Ching and Chia-Chia and Guy the gorilla, whose statue is now a favourite climbing spot for kids visiting the primate zone.

There are far too many amazing creatures at the zoo to list here. My favourite zoo trips take in the giraffes (currently unviewable at the time of this writeup due to the UK's foot-and-mouth epidemic), the meerkats, the sealions, the penguins, the primates, the children's zoo (because you can stroke the animals), the Charles Clore pavilion where the small mammals live, and the aquarium, especially the seawater hall where the larger fish and amphibians live. The seawater itself is brought from the Bay of Biscay: two hundred thousand gallons of it. The hall is lit only by the lights from the enormous tanks and on a quiet day, feels eerily like a trip to the bottom of the sea.

The zoo has some interesting architecture, notably Berthold Lubetkin's unusual and fun penguin pool and the multi-angular Snowdon Aviary designed by Lord Snowdon, next to the canal. Most of the zoo's original buildings were designed by Decimus Burton, the young architect who built the Marble Arch. Many of these buildings were cramped and airless, deliberately designed that way in the belief that tropical animals would not survive in the cold air of London. In 1902 Dr Peter Chalmers Mitchell, inspired by new ideas at Hamburg Zoo, set about a major reorganisation of the zoo’s buildings and nearly all the larger animals were given open enclosures, with much better play and exercise facilities. The zoo made efforts to maintain this policy of improvements, but by 1990 a lot of it was looking very shabby. The growing awareness that zoos are not the ideal environments for animals contributed to falling popularity, and there was talk of closing it down. Thankfully this has now been averted and repairs are being made, although the future of the zoo is still under debate.

The prices (£10 entrance fee at the time of writeup) do make for an expensive day out, but the factual information on the animals and the variety on show is excellent, and you can become a life member with unlimited access for £40: well worth it if you live in London.

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