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Julia Bell
Julia Bell

Julia Bell is a writer and Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck and Course Director of the Creative Writing MA. She is the author of three novels, most recently The Dark Light to be published in May 2015 by Macmillan, the co editor of the Creative Writing Coursebook, as well as three volumes of short stories most recently The Sea In Birmingham. She also takes photographs, writes poetry, short stories, occasional essays and journalism, and is the co-curator of spoken word night @InYerEarLondon. Twitter: @juliabell.

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Why I Am Going to the Zoo

I have been lucky enough to visit four zoos this year—Sydney, Singapore and ZSL Whipsnade and London. In each exists precious gene pools of animals which in the wild are critically endangered. In Singapore they have a breeding colony of orangutans which have been largely driven out of the Indonesian rainforests by illegal logging and palm oil plantations. Ditto the current star attractions at London Zoo—two Sumatran tigers—where there are only 300 or so of these animals left in the wild.


Anyone who disputes this might like to visit Singapore on a day when the Sumatran forest fires are so intense they create a life-threatening smog that hangs over the city state, or look out of the plane window as they come into land as the jungle gives way to uniform fields of palm oil plantations. In Sydney Zoo there are colonies of koala—yes that cuddly symbol of Australia—which are also critically endangered. In fact it got to the point where it seemed I could not take in any exhibit without a sinking feeling as I read the information. Almost every animal from the big star attractions to the lowly insects had as part of the information presented about it, an urgent description of some kind of threat against its survival, mostly through habitat loss or degradation, or poaching, and some pretty stark statistics about its odds of making it through the next ten minutes never mind into the lifetime of the next generation.


My friend and fellow author, Jean McNeil, who is as I write in Mwamba, Kenya at an A Rocha Research Centre, speaks very eloquently about this in a Hub piece on Rhino poaching written after her recent trip to South Africa—where conservationists and park rangers battle to protect endangered rhinos from poachers who are equipped with guns, helicopters and night-vision goggles.


Perhaps this is the first and most pressing reason to bring a group of writers to the zoo—to give them access to the endangered animals and their keepers, but also to get them to think about how storytelling and poetry and rhetoric might be a useful tool as a means of raising awareness about the increasingly desperate plight of our planet’s ecosystem. What can we do? The majority of us are not trained scientists or conservationists, we live far away from some of the most acute problems, which are often as not socio-economic and the consequence of the kind of rampant globalisation we rarely get to witness first hand.


But still…but still…to shrug our shoulders in the face of this is to give up and to give up is to be sitting maybe thirty years from now having to explain to our children and our children’s children why we did nothing. Perhaps we can learn how to write a letter encouraging all our friends to boycott products containing palm oil, or write a poem that inspires someone to take on a conservation project, or a short story or a novel which tackles the complex knot of problems around illegal logging in a way that is both readable and persuasive. Or maybe just by studying at close quarters the rich sample of the earth’s biodiversity available to see at London Zoo, be inspired to think outside of the box about a life in harmony with the natural world rather than at its expense. To think about our place in relation to this shrinking ecology.


As zoologist Mark Carwadine puts it so eloquently in his book with Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See:


          Conservation is very much in tune with our survival. Animals and plants provide us with life-saving drugs and food, they pollinate crops and provide important ingredients or many industrial processes. Ironically, it is often not the big and beautiful creatures, but the ugly and less dramatic ones, that we need most. Even so, the loss of a few species may seem irrelevant compared to major environmental problems such as global warming or the destruction of the ozone layer. But while nature has considerable resilience, there is a limit to how far that resilience can be stretched. No one knows how close to the limit we are getting. The darker it gets, the faster we're driving.

          There is one last reason for caring, and I believe that no other is necessary. It is certainly the reason why so many people have devoted their lives to protecting the likes of rhinos, parakeets, kakapos, and dolphins. And it is simply this: the world would be a poorer, darker, lonelier place without them.


Of course no workshop can change the world, but a few Thursday evenings in October at London Zoo might be a fun place to start.


The ZSL London Zoo Writing Course, taught by Julia Bell and Jean McNeil, begins with an Encounter Day on Saturday the 5th of October and continues with four Thursday night workshops through October. See the ZSL website for more information and to book your place.



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