In January the Belfast Telegraph (13/1/2016) headlined its account of a report presented to the Council’s Growth and Regeneration Committee, ‘Fears Over Future of Belfast Zoo’.
They took their cue from Ulster Unionist Councillor, Chris McGimpsey, a long-standing critic of the Zoo, who, apart from condemning losses running at £2 million a year, raised more fundamental issues arguing that ‘Zoos are a thing of the past’ and no better than ‘Victorian peep shows…’ He continued:
We are taking animals that normally have been on flat plain 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 c.£570,000 and other support services and property maintenance charges make up McGimpsey’s total of a £2 million p.a. loss.
The Council’s Business Manager agrees that this is ‘unsustainable.’ Yet other councillors are hardly on board for closure. Rather they have approved a plan to reduce the deficit by 30% over three years. As the detail of this is opaque in the extreme it seems unlikely that 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 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 1950’s, 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 critical statistic, that of visitor numbers, these have shown a modest increase to 253,560. Yet as recently as 2009-10 had reached 304,000. 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 other zoos 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 mismanagement, or inadequate marketing etc. etc. Conclusions of this sort evade the possibility that 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 repeats 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 its enormous initial success it was expanded on the same basis in 1934.
In 1941 all the larger animals were shot as a war time 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 at Dunmurry. In 1968 the government refused all funding for any such proposition.
Logic then should have suggested closure. Instead the option of relocation to Hazelwood emerged. This, although higher than Bellevue, was now 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 indeed. As early as 1995 the deficit in the preceding year reached £1,726,430 including £577,620 in loan charges. By 2003 the loss 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 overwhelmingly limited to facilitating captive primary school visits. Meanwhile a former Zoological Society has morphed into a Friends organisation which seems to serve only as a source of sponsorship.
It is more difficult to assess the importance of the zoo’s conservation role. Do its breeding programmes actually play a significant part in the preservation of rare species, or would these endeavours be better undertaken elsewhere and in more favourable climates?
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 fundamental review has been undertaken let alone completed.
It is time to open up this debate.