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Response to Review of London Zoo and the Victorians, 1828-1859

It is a happy surprise to the author that the book received a critical appraisal only a few months after its publication. I wish to thank Dr Andrew Flack for the time and trouble that he took to review the volume.

As Flack aptly summarises, the book presents the London Zoo as ‘a contested space’ –‘a space of segregation and integration, unity and heterogeneity’. It explores how the zoo engaged with a wide range of contextual factors such as urban leisure, social structure and mobility, institutionalisation of science, and both intra- and extra-imperial networks. All of them are equally important in influencing how the animal collection was organised, displayed and perceived. The history of the London Zoo sheds light on a few aspects of the history of the British Empire and vice versa. To probe the complexities and subtleties inherent in the zoo’s development, historiography needs to be liberated from the hegemonic discourse of empire. I hope that the book has achieved its end by showing that the zoo was an ambivalent site of human-animal interactions that both evoked and received different and sometimes competing ideas. The ambivalence often caused conflicts in the zoo, but it also had the versatility to evolve into the 20th and 21st centuries (169–72).

Flack is right in pointing out that the book has not expanded on animal history. My argument related to this burgeoning field of study focuses on the invalidity of empire as an analytical tool for interpreting the cultural meanings of collecting and displaying animals. He criticises the book for contending that ‘it cannot be said that zoo animals recovered their agency in the zoo’ (p. 14). This reading seems slightly out of context, though I admit that the phrase might be misleading. It is not designed to downplay animal influence. The paragraph including the quotation, as a whole, intends to explain that what the visitors thought they observed in the zoo was not always based on reality, but nonetheless affected the ways in which the zoo was managed and its animals were displayed. Within this multifaceted captive space, I should have added, the agency of zoo animals needs to be contextualised. How we understand ‘animal agency’ may determine the course of further discussion: whether we assume it to be a historically variant idea that deserves a place of its own in animal history, or whether we take it as an unquestionable precondition for the analysis of human-animal relationships. Overall, however, I appreciate his constructive criticism and suggestion that the book would have benefited from recent literature on the related subjects. It could potentially lead to an inquiry into how the idea of ‘animal agency’ could be historically situated in the London Zoo. The historical backgrounds from which the concept initially sprang and developed over time should be fully explored so that the zoo and its animals could be integrated appropriately into the historiography of human-animal relationships. For example, how the zoo’s flashy metaphor shifted in the course of the 19th century, from ‘the Eden of Northern Marylebone’ to ‘the Bastille of the beasts’ (pp. 163–4), is one of the questions I posed but left unanswered.  

Lastly, I entirely agree with Flack that a comparison between the national and local zoos offers another promising line of inquiry to pursue, and look forward to his book on Bristol Zoo. Besides, as one of the earliest modern zoos, the London Zoo can be contrasted with other major institutions such as the Paris Muséum national d’histoire naturelle and the Tierpark Hagenbeck (p. 168). A comparative and connective perspective will certainly help to expand the geographical scope and analytical depth of zoo historiography.