The animals don't escape any more: why would they want to?

GUY STOCKER returns to London Zoo for the first time in 40 years I VISITED a local attraction recently for the first time in more than 20 years. As a child in the 60s, a day out alone at London Zoo was my greatest thrill and a five bob note more than cov

GUY STOCKER returns to London Zoo for the first time in 40 years

I VISITED a local attraction recently for the first time in more than 20 years. As a child in the 60s, a day out alone at London Zoo was my greatest thrill and a five bob note more than covered all my expenses.

As I lived nearby and was strongly animal-orientated, I bought a season ticket entitling me to unlimited free entry. I went as often as possible and would have happily moved in, had there been a spare cage.

As an aspiring sit-com writer in the 1980s, I went there every day to work on my scripts. In winter, the tropically warm bird house became my office. Apparently the staff thought I was a 'time and motion' man checking to see that they were doing their jobs properly. I like to think that my constant presence and their paranoia significantly increased productivity.

In the old zoo it was possible to make friends with some of the animals. A pair of New Guinea singing dogs that had belonged to the composer Sir Benjamin Britten became particularly close. There was a raven called Hector who spoke as well as any parrot but in a gruff cockney accent. He used to live in the Tower of London but had traditional criminal tendencies and was exiled to the zoo for vandalising someone's Rolls Royce.

Animals sometimes escaped. I was around when an eagle called Goldie was loose in Regent's Park terrorising old ladies by eyeing up their pooches when peckish. I spent several days searching for an escaped red panda and was there to witness the excitement and drama of its recapture.

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The public was banned from feeding the animals. My namesake, Guy the gorilla, had died after over indulging in gifted ice lollies. Chimps' tea parties gave out all the wrong messages and were also outlawed, but both these activities seemed to be greatly enjoyed by animals and visitors alike. I wondered if the new modern zoo had found any alternative ways of making a day out there as pleasurable as it once way. I discovered that it had.

On entering it was immediately apparent that the zoo was no longer just a vast collection of exotic creatures. It is now an organisation devoted to the worldwide conservation of animals and their habitats.

You support this simply by visiting. It is a charity, but one where you seem to get back more than you give. Absolutely everything has been improved. At every turn there is a new exhibit, attraction or activity, all now gently educational.

I was a Fellow of the Zoological Society at a time when the zoo came perilously close to closure. It all became too depressing and I gave up on the place.

Now I feel like a rat that left a sinking ship only to discover that it had been converted into a luxury liner where the rodents all enjoy fine dining. It is the zoo which I wish I had known as a child. I don't think the animals escape any more. I don't think they even want to.

I went to my favourite old haunt, the reptile house, and was slightly disappointed that the highly evocative smell I had associated with the place had completely disappeared.

When I remembered that the odour had been caused by an infestation of cockroaches, it didn't seem to matter. This house has been completely transformed. Here and throughout the zoo, the labels are now much more informative. One even informed me that the king cobra might be a bit shy and suggested which log it might be hiding beneath. In the event, it came out to greet me like an old and dear friend.

Another snake, the sidewinder, shared its enclosure with a discarded packet of Marlborough cigarettes and an empty Budweiser bottle. A small boy explained to me that they were trying to mimic its typical habitat. Remarkably it also mimicked my own typical habitat.

This place may have magical properties. Harry Potter had a life-enriching experience here and I once got a job managing a massive reticulated python for the Star Wars film The Empire Strikes Back. I got to work with the likes of Luke Skywalker and everyone's favourite Jedi master, Yoda. I doubt that would have happened if I hadn't developed a passion for reptiles in London Zoo.

The last time I visited the reptile house it was slightly run-down and seemed half empty. Now it overflows with species, several of which I had never seen before. Only the Indo-Chinese spitting cobra was missing. I expect he had breached the terms of his Asbo. It's still a filthy habit.

I moved on but it was nearly lunch time. One day at the zoo is not nearly long enough to savour all the many new delights and I can't possibly do it justice in a few hundred words. You need to go to see it for yourselves. You wouldn't see much change from a five bob note, but you will have a great day out and your entrance fee will help save the planet.