From dog in night-time to a tortoise enclosure at London Zoo

at London Zoo

at London Zoo - Credit: Archant

Mark Haddon is among the literary figures inviting people to join them on a visit to see London Zoo’s animals in a whole new light

He found fame writing about a dead dog, but Mark Haddon will get up close to a very different animal when he gives a talk at London Zoo.

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time author will climb into the Galapagos tortoise enclosure in August to give a talk inspired by the giant creatures.

He is among a group of writers appearing at a series of literary events at ZSL in Regent’s Park.

Each chose an animal, then visited the zoo to talk to keepers and conservation experts, and meet their subjects.

Poet and Orange prize-winning novelist Helen Dunmore will be in the zoo’s new exhibit Tiger Territory talking about the big cats, poet Glyn Maxwell will be celebrating the Mallorcan Midwife toad, Andrew O’Hagan will be cosying up to his “other half” the Malaysian Tapir, and poet Jo Shapcott will be in Rainforest Life to hymn a verse to the slender loris.

Each event will include a talk by a ZSL expert explaining more about the animal, and keepers will be on hand to answer questions.

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The series is curated and chaired by Kentish Town poet Ruth Padel, a ZSL fellow who will give her own talk on hummingbirds, amethyst starlings and bleeding heart doves from within the tropical bird cage.

“The big theme with habitat loss and climate change is that species are disappearing,” she says.

“ZFL does the most fantastic work across the globe – from marine conservation to working with local communities trying to balance human and animal needs – but people don’t connect them with conservation. They think of the zoo as animals in cages for entertainment.

“I wanted to get people into the zoo who wouldn’t normally come because they think the zoo is bad.

“If they see endangered animals in action in enclosures of high standards, and the way the zoo educates the young and hopefully encourages them conservation wise, it might make them change their minds.”

During the talk, the audience will learn how a particular animal lives, why it’s endangered and how ZSL is working to protect it.

Padel is all for putting people in touch with animals and countering the “nature deficit disorder” of many urban folk out of touch with the natural world, citing “children who think milk comes in boxes and don’t realise tigers are real.”

“It seems obvious that the health of human beings is highly dependent on the health of the environment around them. Our wellbeing depends on a healthy relation to wider natural life forms.”

Padel, who has written books about wildlife crime and tigers, and animal and human migration, is also a great, great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin.

“In 1838, Darwin sat down in front of Jenny the orangutan and brought her a mirror which led to ideas about evolution and expression of emotion in man and animals. He observed they have the same muscles to express things so why might they not have the same feelings too?”


She adds that authors have been given free rein to write something new about their chosen animal – a poem, prose or a speech: “These writers have been fantastic, they have thrown themselves into it. It explores the difference between imagination and reality, do writers, conservationists and scientists see animals differently?”

Haddon, also a fellow of ZSL, asks: “Is it sentimentality or are there parts of our humanity which we can understand only through our relationship with certain animals?”

His talk will draw on a list of interconnected things: “The tiger, the horse, the tortoise, the eagle, the bear, the wolf, giant tortoises, Charles Darwin, longevity, animal minds, disability, zombies, silence, the storage of nuclear waste”.

Maxwell finds the extremely rare toad alytes muletensis both “beautiful and vulnerable, as well as being one of those rare animal species where the male does something surprisingly helpful – carries the eggs around for the female.”

Dunmore explains that the “solitary, charismatic tiger haunts the landscape of imagination from our earliest childhood”.

And O’Hagan, who often walks from his home in Primrose Hill to visit the tapir, confesses: “He looks like me and has that special skill some people attribute to dogs, he appears to know me, my other half, this long-nosed, nice-eyed, easy-to-hurt and mellow creature.”

Shapcott was intrigued by the name of her chosen animal by its night vision and “air of mystery”.

“Sadly, because it’s a species in decline, I wanted to celebrate it while it’s still here.”

Steve Marriott, who runs the zoo’s arts and culture programme, said he hoped it would reach a different audience who might visit the zoo to access the arts but learn more about animals in the process: “As a zoo, we are all about education and conservation, with 50 conservation projects going on worldwide.

“These talks inside the animal houses will be unique and atmospheric. We gave the writers free rein but we tried to focus on more endangered species where there are breeding programmes in place – like the Sumatran tiger, there are only 300 left in the world and we are hoping to breed them here.”

n Writers Talks at London Zoo start on May 14 with Jo Shapcott. Tickets cost £12, bookings on, 0844 225 1826.