The Zoo

“The Zoo” by Isobel Charman

Published in the Wall Street Journal, Apr. 14, 2017 5:10 p.m. ET

A Zoo in Dickensian London

Society ladies and men of science came to visit Tommy the 2-foot tall chimpanzee. All were awed by his resemblance to a human child. Laura J. Snyder reviews “The Zoo” by Isobel Charman.

A curious sight greeted passengers boarding the Bristol-to-London coach one autumn day in 1835: occupying one of the seats was a 2-foot tall chimpanzee dressed in a tattered white shirt. His travel companion was Devereux Fuller, the head keeper of the London Zoo, who had just purchased Tommy off a ship that brought him from Gambia. The two had walked, hand in hand, along the quayside to the waiting carriage.

Isobel Charman, a television producer, introduces us to Tommy in “The Zoo,” her sprightly tale of the London Zoo from its conception in 1824 to the death of its longtime president in 1851.

Tommy would become the most famous attraction of the zoo, although the 2-year-old creature was never put on display. The chimpanzee was housed in the Keepers’ Lodge until the spring, so he could be kept warm, dry and safe from the winter climate that routinely killed many of the zoo’s exotic animals. Politicians, society ladies and men of science came to visit the lodge, awed one and all by Tommy’s resemblance to a human child, an illusion aided by his new outfit: a Guernsey frock and sailor cap. They delighted in watching Tommy toddle around, sit on the lap of Mrs. Williams the cook, and throw tantrums when the keepers would not let him sip from their glasses of porter.

The Zoo
The Zoo
By Isobel Charman

In spite of the zoo’s precautions, Tommy did not survive the London winter. Princess Victoria came to see him on his deathbed in March. A newspaper obituary described the postmortem dissection, where eminent anatomists were shocked to discover that, had they not known the subject was a chimpanzee, “all that they saw . . . would have led them to pronounce it human.”

Even after death, the zoo’s inhabitants were made useful. As Ms. Charman skillfully shows us, “nothing would be wasted that could be of scientific value.” John Gould, the chief “Animal Preserver” of the Zoological Society (and the ornithologist who classified Charles Darwin’s Galapagos finches and mockingbirds) gloried in the arrival of an orangutan from Calcutta. When it arrived, too sickly to join the zoo, “John Gould knew,” Ms. Charman writes, that “he would soon take possession” of it.

Within days, the animal died. It was carried to the Stuffing Room where Gould removed and prepared its skin, wrapped it around a wooden frame, then stuffed it with wire, sawdust and cotton and gave it eyes fashioned from glass and clay. The skinless carcass was dissected by Richard Owen, the comparative anatomist who would later invent the name “dinosaurs.” The remains were macerated to preserve the skeleton.

Ms. Charman divides her tale into seven chapters, each devoted to a person associated with the zoo. What links the chapters is a growing awareness on the part of her subjects that the zoo’s animals behave surprisingly like humans. Suicidal kangaroos throw themselves against their enclosures to the point of death. Jack the elephant transforms from a gentle giant to an angry beast after a new rhinoceros becomes the more popular attraction. One keeper suggests that an older lion fell ill due to jealousy of a younger male occupying the cage with the lioness. As Fuller, the head keeper, ruminates, “once you started giving vicious beasts like that human emotions, well, that was when it became dangerous to care for them.”

Did Fuller really think this? We don’t know—and neither does Ms. Charman. Many of the book’s details come from her imagination, not the historical record. In an “author’s note” she acknowledges inventing the thoughts, daily activities and words of her protagonists, including Tommy the chimpanzee. She justifies her choice by explaining that she wanted to write a “fleshed out” and “narrative” account. But many writers of history manage do this without fictionalizing their subject.

The author does hew closely to the evidence when she describes Darwin’s visit to the zoo in 1838, two years after returning from his voyage on the Beagle. He watches as a new orangutan, Jenny, is teased by her keeper: he offers her an apple and then pulls it away just as she reaches for it. Mining to great effect Darwin’s own evocative description of the meeting in his journals, Ms. Charman writes, “Jenny was incensed. She threw herself on her back, kicked her feet and wailed in despair. Precisely like a naughty child! She writhed and kicked her long limbs, and then she sulked. . . . Finally, the keeper said to her, Jenny, if you will stop bawling and be a good girl, I will give you the apple.” Jenny soon stopped her whining, and the keeper handed her the apple. She ran to her chair where she happily gnawed on the fruit.

Watching Jenny, Darwin was struck by “how civilized apes could be,” compared to human cannibals he had met on Tierra del Fuego (one might even say, compared to visitors to the zoo’s bear pit, who goaded the exhausted creatures up a pole). It was at this moment, Ms. Charman claims, that “Darwin had lost the conviction of his peers that man was elevated from the rest of the Animal Kingdom, handcrafted in his perfection by the Creator.” As “The Zoo” engagingly shows us, caring for and observing caged beasts transformed our view of animals—and of ourselves.