Dublin Zoo in the 1980s was a place of red-brick buildings, uneven steps and uncountable tarmac pathways where kids would charge from one basic animal enclosure to the next.
Decades of construction work had spoiled the lake, the soil was “more archaeology than gardening” and geese controlled the grounds like feathered hooligans. One major thing to note was the lack of plants.
Working with a meagre budget, head gardener and horticulturist Stephen Butler and his team set about reimagining the plant life of the zoo.
In his book Gardening for Gorillas: Trials, Tricks and Triumphs of a Zoo Horticulturalist we follow almost four decades of botanical change in the gardens, from the early days when scarce but successful plant life was encouraged into sparse areas of the zoo, to tackling the lake and from the mid-1990s onwards, when funding for redevelopment really kicked in.
Prior to the mid-1980s, the general consensus was that zoological gardens were dedicated to animals, while botanic gardens looked after plants. This book is testimony to changing attitudes on animal welfare and biodiversity over the past forty years.
The concept of transforming the zoo into an expedition of discovery has been embraced, and the prevailing ethos by the zoological team these days is that the more a visitor looks, the more they will see.
Foliage is chosen to replicate the natural environment of the animals. This opens up an opportunity for camouflage and sanctuary, making these environments more comfortable for the animals. It also supports what is called “The Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare”, which leads to healthier and happier animals in captivity.
The book highlights many of the battles the team have had to contend with over the years, tricky tasks such as managing the creeping buttercups’ takeover of the wild meadow, and larger projects like the creation of the Gorilla Rainforest, an area in the zoo inspired by the Mbeli Bai swamp in the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo.
There is also the ongoing balancing act of plant selection. The team must ensure the chosen plants are not poisonous to animals, while also making sure new plants will not be eaten by said animals before the week is out. Despite the widespread belief that barriers of flora and fence are in place to save the visitors from harm, the fences are there as much to protect the animals from people, the author proposing a more suitable sign for the enclosures would be:
“PLEASE DON’T PUT YOUR FINGERS THROUGH THE MESH AS THE ANIMALS MAY EAT THEM AND GET SICK”
From his early life in west London, living close to the banks of the River Crane, the author has always appreciated the surrounding plant life. His love and passion for the plant world shines through in the text, as well as a healthy scattering of humour.
We read of mix-ups over spelling mistakes on signs and punters’ concerns about the eating habits of the dinosaurs during a model dinosaur exhibit.
We also get answers to some of those questions often raised by young inquisitive minds. How do staff get to the primate island for maintenance? Did the giraffes cause the demise of that mammoth tree in the African Savannah habitat? Why do orangutans chuck the odd plant at the Siamang gibbons’ house?
Much of the book offers guidance on how to approach zoological design, the plant life best suited for animal habitat and the challenges that come with large-scale gardening projects.
Barring the odd extreme conservationist or eccentric pop star, most of us are not going to set up our own zoological gardens anytime soon. However, aspects dedicated to habitat design, soil drainage and planting locations can certainly transfer to smaller gardening projects, even for the likes of us who follow the “firefighting” gardening method of barely keeping on top of weed taming and hedge trimming.
Each chapter is interlaced with images of zoo habitats and flora. The tiger lily with their fiery orange and black flowers. The purple and yellow blossoms of Lampranthus spectabilis, sparkling like decorations on frosty leaves. It is an international congregation too. Silver grass from Asia, New Zealand wind grass and Amorpha fruticosa from Mexico and the US to name a few.
In mid-February, the desert around Rafha in Saudi Arabia bloomed with vibrant mulberry-coloured flowers. The sight is so rare on those arid lands that it attracts visitors from the furthest reaches of the peninsula, some travelling over 700 kilometres to see the blossoms.
Right here on our doorstep sits Dublin Zoo with its rich and exciting collection of plant life. Gardening for Gorillas captures the monumental changes the landscape and habitat of the gardens has undergone these past decades.
Aside from being an extremely useful guide for horticulturists, the book is a fitting tribute to the stunning plant life of the zoo and a fascinating account of gardening ingenuity for anyone who has an interest in the world of plants.