London Zoo to stress creature comforts

Residents of London Zoo are getting spiffed-up accommodations. The zoo, one of the largest and oldest animal collections in the world, is scheduled to be renovated to the tune of 21 million (about $25.2 million).

Zoo officials plan to cut the animal population from its current level of 9,000 to 6,000. Some of the largest animals, including bigger bears, will be moved out altogether.

Those that remain on a refurbished site of 35 acres in the heart of London will be grouped into 10 ``theme'' displays, with emphasis on reproducing their natural environments as accurately as possible.

Another goal of the plan is to end London Zoo's losses -- currently running up to 2 million a year -- by making the site a more exciting place for adults and children.

One feature of existing policy will remain unchanged: Private citizens will still be able to ``adopt'' animals by agreeing to pay a set sum each year for their upkeep.

The annual adoption charge for an elephant, for example, is 5,000. The zoo offers 30 ``shares'' in the elephant Dilberta to spread the load, as it were.

More modest commitments include 1,000 a year for a camel, 250 for a penguin, and 10 for a nile rat.

For 90 you can regard a London Zoo flamingo as your very own. A fruit bat, if your taste runs in that direction, can be adopted for 30.

Producing the new blueprint has taken several years of battle by reformers who believe the zoo is old-fashioned, overcrowded, and a bad place for many of its inhabitants.

The reformers had to overcome powerful interests who believed (and continue to believe) that London Zoo is primarily a scientific facility and that its entertainment side should remain secondary.

The new setup, with financial support from the government, will put the stress on entertainment, though scientific work will continue, zoo managers say.

Critics of the zoo have argued, for example, that the polar bear display -- an area with elevated concrete tiers -- makes the bears feel thoroughly miserable. Plans call for making them more comfortable with a simulated North American tundra environment.

The zoo authorities hope to complete the project in 15 years.

London Zoo was established in 1826 by Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of the colony of Singapore. Today the zoo houses 170 species of mammals, 100 species of reptiles, and 340 species of birds.

Although the total number of inhabitants will be cut by one-third, the reduction will be achieved by moving creatures to Whipsnade Zoo outside London or to other British collections.

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