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Dudley Zoo 2011 edition

Well we went for a day trip out to the Zoo. Dudley Zoo.

Things have changed a lot over the years. Dudley Zoological Gardens opened in 1937. At the time it was a place to go and look at creatures you’d only see in books or in moving pictures.

I remember going when I was little. I sat on the back of a Giant Galapagos Tortoise and had a ride. I remember the Killer Whale. I remember the elephants. I remember looking into the meticulously aesthetically designed concrete pits at Polar Bears. I remember eating a picnic in the castle….

Things were different then. You looked at these animals. The environment the animals were kept in wasn’t a real concern.

Then came Zoo Check and real concerns over animal welfare. Many zoos, including Dudley, were wholly criticized for keeping animals in conditions which were way beyond fit for purpose. And taking into consideration the newly re-focused animal-in-captivity welfare concerns –  they were right.

Giant Tortoises (and rides) went. Keeping Killer Whales in pools that were so small they couldn’t move went (the Orca died in ’74 before it could be relocated). Keeping Polar Bears in concrete bowls where they paced all day just wasn’t on. From being intrigued about these bizarre animals from overseas that we wouldn’t see in real life without traveling; we all started to care that they were kept in the best conditions possible. Now that wasn’t to say keepers of their day weren’t doing their job, or caring about the animals in the care. Times they’d changed. Visitors expectations changed.

Dudley was a zoo that struggled it’s way through all of this. And to compound the issues of modernization – the Art Deco concrete enclosures, designed by Berthold Lubetkin’s Tecton Group,  were Grade II listed. So they couldn’t be taken down. They couldn’t be changed.

The larger animals began to disappear over time. And what do you do with an old Polar Bear that probably wouldn’t survive if moved, than you can’t build a new environment for, and that another Zoo probably wouldn’t take. Have it destroyed? Or look after it the best you can til it dies.

And the Zoo with lack of visitors and lack of funds began to literally fall into dereliction.

But over the past few years they’ve began to find a path. New structures, where possible have appeared, with environments that are substantially better than the old.  Some have been modernized as much as possible. Animals kept as mentally stimulated as possible to encourage natural behavior.

Dudley Zoo 2011 edition, now concentrates on several areas:

  • Conservation. Several animals including Giraffe, Red Panda and Asiatic Lion are part of bigger breeding programs, where species are so endangered that captive breeding programs are an option to keep the species alive.
  • Transfer zone. They are effectively a ‘holding’ zone in the transfer of animals from one location to another (while waiting for their new accommodation to be ready).
  • Taking in unwanted pets – from snakes to tarantulas, injured birds to birds of prey…
  • History. With a castle which goes from the 12th century through to Tudor times it utilizes it’s historic values through workshops of the times and ghost walks.
  • Education. Big time engagement – on a visit expect 15 or more mini experiences – whether hands on, feeding times, birds of prey flying times, ghost and historic stories. Or, for example,  you can be a Zoo Keeper for a Day.
  • Animal Sponsorship. Sponsor a penguin… Arkwright. Do you know which one he is?
  • Venue hire. You can have your wedding reception there.

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There are one or two animals still from times past. A Brown Bear, now thirty odd, too old to move, and near her end of life, is looked after as well as possible, in one of the old enclosures. Her coat is shiny. Physically the old lady looks well.

There’s a Lemur Walk - where you can walk through a large area which contains different breeds of Lemur – where you walk into their world, not a cage. Large area for Asiatic Lions as part of a conservation program (there’s only 300 left in the wild). And further (if minimal work) is undergoing.

In 2009 Dudley Zoological Gardens Charity operated on about £2.5m. In today’s money that’s nothing. And it severely could do with infrastructure investment to do something with the derelict, but listed structures. But it’s clean and well kept, the animals are well looked after and you cannot fault the keepers and workers on their commitment to the animals.

There are many animals at risk of dying out in our lifetime. And it is a pre-requisite about zoos these days to be primarily concerned with conservation. And there is probably still a need to care for those animals too old to move, or who are unwanted, or born in captivity couldn’t be put back out into their own environment.

Dudley Zoo does a lot of great stuff. But clearly runs on limited money, limited resources and limited staff.  Does it know what its long term direction should be?  I’m also not sure that it has a real structured marketing plan either. It’s almost that like many animals, Dudley Zoo is about day-to day-survival.

I’d like to see Dudley Zoo expand on it’s education. Do more and more conservation work to do with rare breeds. Have a strategy. Utilize it’s phenomenal history far more.

It is a really sweet day out, rather than a great day out. You will enjoy it. But in order to survive, just like some of the animals it cares for, it needs your help. The choice is yours. Support it by visiting. If you keep away –  like the DoDo –  it’ll die out.