ZSL Writers Talks 2014

Talita Jenman

ZSL Writers Talks on Endangered Animals - 2014 season

Writers Talks on Endangered Animals have been taking place at ZSL London Zoo since spring 2013. The idea for the talks was to bring together writers talking on an animal they are interested in, ZSL conservationists plus a ZSL London Zoo keeper that worked with the species in question.

From May to October 2014, ZSL presented the second series of its unique Writers' Talks on Endangered Animals in the animal houses of ZSL London Zoo, chaired by poet and ZSL Council Member Ruth Padel.

Ruth Padel writes about this season:

“The purpose of these Talks is to bring new audiences into ZSL London Zoo, to understand the vital conservation work done by ZSL around the globe: especially anyone who loves reading, loves books, poetry, ideas, good writing - or simply loves nature and wild animals. Leading writers, poets, novelists, historians, travel writers (and this year a leading psychoanalyst) team up with ZSL conservation scientists and keepers to talk intimately about different endangered animals. The audience sees the animal quietly, after the Zoo closes. They hear a specialist ZSL conservation scientist talk about its status in the wild, the challenges and threats it faces in its habitat, and the ZSL conservation programmes that to protect it.

Then they hear the writer talk about the animal from their own imaginative or personal perspective maybe poems, a story, an imaginative history or personal experiences. Because wild animals belong to us all:  they are part of the nature which we, as a global community, inherit and wish to preserve.

The audience also hears the keeper of the animals, at the ZSL London Zoo enclosure, talk about the individual animals under their care - their personality, their interaction with each other and what it is like looking after them.

Each of these evenings had its own flavour and was a satisfyingly rich mix of art, science, and personal engagement. The audiences asked interesting questions of the scientists, the keepers and the writers while getting their books signed. (Sold by our close supporters, The Primrose Hill Bookshop) The discussions were lively and everyone went away with their own memories of the animal relaxing, off duty from the public.

We began in May with acclaimed novelist Louise Doughty on the highly endangered Okapi, which lives only in the Congo and has been subject to horrific attacks. There was a careful, sensitive account of its conservation from noted ZSL conservationist Dr Noelle Kumperl, who has worked in the challenging and dangerous field in Congo for many years. It was a magical evening, held in the house of the okapis’ cousins the giraffes, after viewing the okapis - because animal welfare is paramount and giraffes are curious about visitors where okapis, who like to hide away in their own habitat, tend to be rather shy. The giraffes were fascinated, their long necks arched over to look at recording equipment, microphone and the audience, like a bunch of wondering lilies.

ZSL Writers Talks
Writers Talks Penguins 2014

In June, we had the acclaimed and best-selling travel writer Sarah Wheeler who described hilarious adventures camping among penguins, as the penguins almost upstaged her, diving and swimming on a gorgeously hot summer evening. For this event we teamed up with the Royal Society of Literature, of which Trustee Ruth Padel is a Fellow and so is Sarah Wheeler. The former Director of ZSL Institute of Zoology, Tim Blackburn, who specializes in ornithology, gave a fascinating talk on the history of penguins and their place in the eco system, which was appreciated by the RSL audience as much as the ZSL guests. 

ZSL Writers Talks

In July, we partnered another respected institution, the Freud Museum, in hosting acclaimed psychoanalyst and best-selling author Susie Orbach at Tiger Territory. A ZSL scientist spoke on what is happening to real jungles in the world today, the position of tigers in it and the threats they face, the keeper spoke on the ZSL Sumatran tigers Jae-Jae and Melati, the cubs and parents’ behaviour. Meanwhile the male Jae-Jae tiger swam, splashed in the pool and roared: he put on such a show that Susie Orbach suggested the audience turn their chairs to face the tiger rather than her! But everyone wanted to listen as she spoke on “Jungles of the Mind”, explaining clearly and inspiringly how a psychoanalyst works, the secrets of the of the “habitat” consulting room. There was a lively audience discussion afterwards, and long book-signing queues.

ZSL Writers Talks

In August, prize-winning poet David Harsent wrote a special new poem for our African Hunting Dogs entitled Lycaon Pictus; he also read poems on other conservation issues closer to home, including the hen harrier which became an interesting discussion with ZSL Zoological Manager Mark Habben.

ZSL Writers Talks

In September we heard from television historian and prize winning author Tom Holland on Asian lions. The evenings were drawing in now and we had the extraordinary sight of a lioness rearing up in the dark and (the lion keeper was sorry to observe) peeing on the glass of their enclosure while Tom Holland showed us glorious slides of Moghul paintings of Asian lions. All in the site which will become the new Asian lion exhibit designed to showcase conservation issues around these highly endangered creatures.

ZSL Writers Talks

Finally, in October, we heard from Darwin scholar, conservationist and great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin - Randal Keynes. He spoke about Jenny, the first Orangutan at London zoo, and how Darwin’s encounters with her led him to his insight into natural selection as the mechanism for evolution.  Keeper Paul Kybett spoke about the orangutans ZSL London Zoo housed in the 1990’s, the photographs and audience discussion was thrilling.”

Many of this season's talks were recorded and will be available on this blog soon in the form as soundcloud links. Please follow @ZSLArts on twitter to receive news and updates!

The ZSL London Zoo Writers Talks on Endangered Species programme will recommence April 2015.

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