LONDON — IN the early 1980s, Margaret Thatcher began a world trend when she started selling off Britain's publicly owned assets, including oil, gas, water, and the national airline, British Airways. Will John Major, her successor, be remembered as the prime minister who privatized Indian elephants, African giraffes, Brazilian tapirs, and birds and insects from sundry parts of the globe?
Mr. Major's environment minister, David Trippier, last Thursday told a delegation of officials from London Zoo that the government was tired of dipping into the public purse to fund the world's oldest and most famous collection of wild animals in captivity.
No more public money was available, he said. Privatization of the zoo's 8,000 inmates, together with its 38-acre site in the heart of the British capital, had to be considered a real option, Mr. Trippier's officials insisted.
The financial plight of London Zoo, which first opened its gates (after locking its cages) 164 years ago, is sparking a fierce debate. Part of the argument is about the rights and wrongs of keeping animals imprisoned for the entertainment of the public.
But the delegation's request for a cash handout of $21 million to avert the zoo's closure and the likely slaughtering of many of its inmates raised a financial and political question to which some Thatcherites believe they have the answer.
Trippier reminded David Jones, the zoo's director, that three years ago the government provided $18 million as "a once and for all payment" to put the Zoological Society of London on its feet. It was up to the management team in Regent's Park to find new ways of helping the zoo to "wash its own face."
Mr. Jones says the zoo's money problems are coming from two directions. "We urgently need L 13 million [US$23 million] to pay for repairs to buildings and equipment. At the same time we are losing nearly L 2 million [US$3.5 million] a year. In the 1950s we attracted 3 million people a year. Last year attendance was down to just over 1 million."
When the extent of the zoo's problems became widely known last week there was no shortage of suggestions as to how it could respond. A London property developer rang in to propose that the zoo's giant camel house and nearby car park be turned into a building site for half a dozen expensive town houses.
"The profits would provide the cash you need," he said.
Officials at Trippier's environment department proffered more sophisticated ways for the zoo to strike a balance between commerce and conservation. One suggested that Jones and his staff should travel to Chessington, outside London, where 20 years ago the local zoo was purchased by the Pearson group of companies and renamed "The Chessington World of Adventures."
On its site parents and children can see a range of animals, including gorillas, but they can also take fun rides and play games. Chessington last year notched up 1.5 million visitors to become the country's most popular animal attraction. Like London's Madame Tussaud waxworks museum, also owned by Pearson, it turns a tidy profit.
Tempting though it might seem to give London Zoo the Chessington treatment, government privatizers are bound to meet stiff resistance if they try. In the first place, London Zoo is a national institution.
"Closing it would be like shutting down Buckingham Palace," one visitor said last week. Another commented: "London without its zoo would be like Paris without the Eiffel Tower."
Another problem is that 10 of the 70 buildings on the Regent's Park site are "listed" - officially deemed to be of special architectural interest and not to be pulled down or significantly altered.
"This means that anyone trying to run the site on a fully commercial basis would be saddled with several uneconomic buildings," a zoo official said.
London Zoo's directors have been accused of wasting a lot of money on administration. There are suggestions that a privatized zoo would be more careful with its resources.
Graham Dangerfield, founder of the Dangerfield Wildlife Trust, said: "You only have to visit the big city zoos in Europe to see that they can work perfectly well with far fewer senior managers." Available figures support that contention: Berlin's zoo has 10 senior staff. London's has 24.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to putting the British capital's zoo into the marketplace and letting it fend financially for itself is its role as a research institution.
"The experience zoos like London's have built up could prove directly relevant to the management of conservation reserves and national parks," said Dr. Benjamin Beck, associate director of the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.
One of London Zoo's specialists currently is helping to conserve mountain gorillas in central Africa. Another is working to protect the threatened black rhinoceros in Kenya.
Jones argues that if London Zoo were privatized, the research program would be in jeopardy.
With its existing range of inmates, the zoo would be expensive to run as a wholly commercial concern. Food bills have soared in recent years.
It costs $11,000 a year to feed an elephant. When Ming Ming, the zoo's new panda, arrives from China later this year, Jones will have to find an annual $35,000 to provide it with bamboo shoots.
Koala bears each gobble up $7,000 worth of specially imported eucalyptus leaves. Lions and tigers cost $3,500 a year to feed.
Faced with financial crisis, London Zoo's directors are expected to fight tooth and claw to avoid being privatized. Last week they launched an emergency appeal for the money needed for immediate repairs.
A zoo official said attendance at London Zoo was up by 40 percent as a result of the publicity surrounding the threatened closure. Donations of $1.8 million had already been promised.
There were reports at the weekend that the government had proposed moving the zoo from central London to an outer suburb. But Jones said that would cost at least $144 million, and even with substantial private backing there would have to be a huge injection of public money.
Trippier's officials, however, seemed unwilling to yield in their view that London Zoo has to find a way of financing itself.
One government source said: "It is likely that unless some measure of privatization is introduced at Regent's Park, the zoo will simply fade away, for lack of money."