Making Nature exhibition

Making Nature is an exhibition I recently visited at the Wellcome Galleries in Euston. It provides an intriguing look at the evolving relationship between humans and nature.

Though I can’t say that I related to every part of the exhibition, I would recommend it as a welcome introduction to considering humans and their place (or rather, perceived place) within the natural world.


Separated into four themed rooms, Making Nature attempts to guide visitors through the complex journey of the last century or two that has seen us move from studying nature to ‘creating’ it. The first signpost on that whistle-stop tour was ‘Organising’.

This room was dedicated to early studies and illustrations of nature, including botanical study. It examined where and how nature was placed within those studies, early books and art work, and how that initial work evolved into more formal study of taxonomy.

Taxonomy; the science of classification – in this case of organisms – is truly reflective of how we position ourselves within a kingdom of wildlife (usually we humans place ourselves at the top of such a structure). I think that was the point being made in a darkened alcove of the room, playing video footage and rolling subtitles about humans’ search for intelligent life in outer space, and declaring that we should look a little closer to home; in parrots.

Admittedly, this display seemed a little out of place amongst all the old sketches and classification charts, but it had a good point — that parrots are vocal communicators like humans, and capable of speech, but we’ve only just begun to consider them as a species to communicate with.

This was highlighted by the story of Alex the Grey Parrot and Dr. Irene Pepperberg, who conducted research into the cognitive abilities of parrots. Find out more about them here: http://alexfoundation.org


The next room looked at our need to ‘progress’ from illustrations to true-to-life displays of animals. Not far from the early ideals of man being at the top of the pyramid of life, the ‘displaying’ room examined various curiosities in man’s attempt to hold, house and recreate nature for our viewing pleasure.

Beginning with Crystal Palace’s famous Victorian dinosaur park — home to stone recreations of the imaginings of what real life dinosaurs would have looked like (created using fossil finds of the time; though not always accurate) — leading on to the more common displays of the day; the diorama display.

The pain-staking details of many diorama displays try to capture the colours, atmosphere and scale of the natural world and have provoked a progression in taxidermy; to aim for ‘action poses’ attempting to recreate natural behaviour. Quite unlike the portrait-style emotionless taxidermy you largely find in the infamous Hall of Mammals at London’s Natural History Museum.
London’s Natural History Museum’s significant architecture was also examined in this room. Originally built as a ‘cathedral to nature‘, the outside of the building was once adjourned with a figure of Adam at the top of its arches, to signify man’s place at the top of the kingdom’. The biblical figure of Adam no longer remains


The purpose of displaying is to, of course, allow for observation. As humans we moved from an interest in static displays and illustrations to the desire to observe real life animal behaviour for ourselves. And so comes an examination of the era of the zoological gardens and eventually ‘the zoo‘.

This area of the exhibit examines the early popular attractions of London Zoo, including a once much-admired performing elephant and London’s ‘infamous polar bears’ — immortalised in zoo merchandise such as postcards and plushie toys.

One of the evolutions in the history of zoo that I can never quite get my head around was the conscious movement to irradicate a sense of natural environment from the zoo enclosure. Described in this exhibition as London Zoo‘s movement to champion architecture that ‘contrasted the animals and made them stand out’, this seems like such a dark and misguided interpretation of animal observation to me.

Famous architects were employed to remove nature from the surrounds, which ultimately removes the chance to see animals’ naturalistic behaviour. The very thing the zoo was supposed to provide.

This room made me think about an episode of popular US podcast Radiolab, which examines a period in the late 1970s where zoo architect David Hancocks re-examines a gorilla enclosure after a discussion with renowned gorilla expert Dian Fossey about what the animals’ natural environment would look like. His experiment to bring a naturalistic environment into the gorilla enclosure is considered the first link between zoo enclosure and the mental health of the animal’s inside them (listen to the full episode here).

I was somewhat disappointed that this room didn’t contain any mention of opposition to zoos, or the concrete architectural designs of enclosures like the one shown in the photograph above. This snapshot of a concrete prison, devoid of enrichment and anything that even slightly resembles life in the wild was even available to buy as a postcard in the gift shop. It made me think of Born Free Foundation‘s report on elephant captivity; Innocent Prisoner.

Making Nature‘s insight into ‘observation’ also included a modern-day video about the process of landscaping a zoo enclosure to fulfil the need for animal enrichment, but also for spectators to feel ‘involved’ — as the interviewee put it, “so they can get up close enough to the animals to feel scared”.

Again, I was disappointed that there was no mention of opposition to zoos, as if the exhibition worked on the assumption that we all feel the desire to observe animals in the same way. There was even a video of a sorry-looking tiger kept in house; wandering between bedroom and bathroom, looking in the mirror and yowling. The idea was to try and decide whether the tiger recognised itself in the mirror. I couldn’t bring myself to sit down and watch.

I was also surprised to see that — although there was mention of London Zoo once having a famous performing elephant — there was nothing on circus’ and the history of observing animals in this kind of environment (and once again, a lack of seizing the opportunity to look at both sides of the argument here). It would have been good to examine some of the complexities and mistakes we have made over our history of observing wildlife, as well as simply noting our penchant for seeing animals up close. I added this feedback to the feedback wall at the end of the exhibition.


The final room in the exhibition was probably the most fascinating to me; examining human impact and influence on wildlife; specifically genetic engineering, using animals in laboratories for scientific experiments and testing, and domestication.

Compared to the former examples of ‘making nature’, domestication is one that we have grown so accustomed to that it seems less ‘dark’ and extreme — that is, until I saw it laid out in such a clear and confronting manner. From rows of horses teeth, to colour coded budgies to an examination of the ‘perfect’ white rat, regarded as the desired pet of high society Victorian women; it’s weird to think how much we’ve interfered with nature.

There was also a focus on how we use animals outside of the meat, dairy and clothing industry, such as in the days of using the African Clawed Frog as pregnancy test (for 30 years the frog species was used as the most accurate and efficient pregnancy test! Eighteen of the reptiles were introduced to the US in 1937 for this purpose. If a pregnant woman urinated on a female frog, it would produce eggs within 12 hours; this provided the model for the modern day pregnancy test testing urine).

Although some of how we use animals is incredibly uncomfortable to acknowledge, there were some extremely important examples of how we’ve intervened with nature to help humans live alongside it more effectively — such as modifying mosquitos so that they no longer spread diseases like dengue fever. And then there’s the matter of de-extinction.

I’ve read some fascinating articles in both BBC Wildlife magazine and BBC Earth magazine about scientists developing the technology to harvest DNA from specimens of extinct species and using that to create an embryo to be carried by a similar, surviving species.

Woolly mammoths are always the buzzword when it comes to the topic of ‘de-extinction‘, but as yet the capabilities of growing a mammoth embryo are not sophisticated enough to not require a surrogate mother (female elephants are not large enough for the job). It seems that that may about to change before too long however, after the success of a baby lamb grown for four weeks in an artificial womb.

 In the meantime at least, Making Nature shows us the very real and current project to bring back the passenger pigeon.

Natural History Museums around the world are collecting DNA from their specimens of passenger pigeon to try and gather enough to genetically modify an existing living embryo (presumably that of another species of pigeon). Remarkably, the exhibition included a vial of some of this extracted DNA.

The plaque beside it, written by The Long Now Foundation reads:

“This tiny vial captures an extremely unusual moment in the story of the extinct passenger pigeon. DNA samples are being collected from 19th-century passenger pigeons in museum collections, in order to assemble sufficient genetic diversity to be able to ‘resurrect’ the extinct species. While this project is in its infancy with much uncertainty surrounding it, if successful, the passenger pigeon would be the first species to be recovered from DNA alone.”

Now that truly is making nature!

Like this? Read more about my support for a Natural History GCSE

Can you complete the calculating extinction challenge?



Poor elephants on parade

I touched the dry trunk of Dennis, a ‘rescued’ teenage Sumatran elephant, and apologised. “I’m sorry, boy,” I whispered into his solemn expression, “you shouldn’t be here”.

dennis the elephant

Gently running my palm over his sandpaper-like skin, I tried to imagine where he should be. What he would be doing. Who he would be there with. The answers were easy to find. The opposite of here.

I was standing in Bali’s Elephant Safari Park, it was October 2011 and I was looking into the pitiful eyes of one of the saddest looking elephants I’ve ever seen. And there were tens more besides him.

imageBy this point in my life, aged 21, I was just beginning to understand that many of the ways I’d wanted to get close to – and understand – wildlife before now were not really what they seemed. When it comes to ignorance, I’ve been top of the class before; and pretty much every activity that I now understand as being part of and parcel of a serious and corrupt wildlife industry, I’ve been a party to at some point. I suppose that should earn me the name of ‘hypocrite’, but I hope to many it makes me the ideal person to talk about these things – I’m under no illusion as to my own mistakes and lessons, and if I could challenge and re-evaluate my embarrassingly unknowing view of these things, so can anyone.

But standing in The Elephant Safari Park, I was beginning to be a bit more wise. I’d had my reservations about the place before visiting, but having experienced Addo Elephant Park in South Africa, where rescued elephants are kept in a natural environment and integrated in a tourist programme which isn’t detrimental to their well-being, I’d hoped – when my travel buddies had suggested visiting the place – that Elephant Safari would be the same.

imageWith the usual pamphlet spiel about educating tourists, conserving the species and the unique chance to learn about these creatures up close, it sounds the ideal place to re-create an ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ moment – elephant riding through the Bali forest. But when you dig a little deeper, you find on the same premises, these gentle giants are being made to perform circus tricks, paint pictures before a crowd (for sale in the gift shop for a hefty price apparently befitting of such a unique gift) and interact on cue with young, unsuspecting audience members. From where I stood and photographed – with the foresight that I would be talking about the experience in this kind of capacity somewhere down the line – I felt the physical and psychological effects on these beautiful beings was evident.

Embarrassingly, TUSK Trust patron Prince William found himself in a similar resort earlier this month, though in China; not Bali. I use the term ’embarrassingly’ as His Royal Highness was looking to promote animal rights, particularly the plight of the elephants, as he finished his tour of the country which had imposed a year-long Ivory trade ban in honour of his visit. Though the ban may not be the cause for celebration it first seemed, it was perhaps not as much of a disappointment to conservationists as Sky News breaking the story that as the Prince was at a so-called elephant sanctuary, drumming up publicity and media coverage of his mission to highlight the fight to conserve and save endangered species, a number of the beautiful creatures were on the same grounds, less than a kilometre away, penned with their legs shackled, waiting to perform a twice-daily, hour-long show for tourists.

1000Thankfully, the silver-lining to incidents such as this, is that it is beginning to be recognised that elephants performing tricks are often whipped and beaten in order to learn the arduous circus routines they are forced to perform; yanked and prodded by sharp steel-tipped bull hooks behind the scenes – much like the men in blue appeared to be doing at that Elephant safari park in Bali.

imageShortly following the Duke of Cambridge’s speech, and the pitiful announcement of China’s year-long ivory ban, the welcome news reached my ears that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s three touring circuses will phase out elephant acts from its 1,000 shows a year, by 2018: 133 years since P. T. Barnum bought his first one.

ringling brothersRingling Bros. announced the ban following intense pressure and criticism from animal rights protesters, prompting hope for those calling for an end to Seaworld’s water circus cruelty.


Despite this, however, on the 6th March, a proposed new UK law to ban the use of wild animals in circuses was blocked for the 12th time. Blocked by three Tory backbenchers, any parliamentary discussion on the matter has now been automatically ended under parliamentary rules covering backbench bills. There will be no further opportunities to debate the Bill before the General Election, meaning that it has now “fallen” and would need to be reintroduced under the next government if it is to become a reality.

It’s a sickening blow for campaigners – and anyone who cares about the welfare of animals – to feel like traditional, cruel and outdated practices are being maintained, while progression is stunted. But just as I was wondering what message the current government is giving out to future generations and the youth of today, optimism reached my ears.

dumbo-classic-disney-4612936-1280-9602It reached Dumbo’s too.

In an impactful open letter, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have asked Tim Burton; tasked with re-telling Disney’s Dumbo, to consider changing the ending of the original story to see the elephant calf and his mother live out their days in a sanctuary. …Perhaps like the one that the Born Free Foundation are currently hoping to raise the funds to build in Europe?

petaIt is my ultimate hope that the real world will follow that idealistic altered ending that PETA are calling for (and on that note I’ll be announcing my fundraising plans for contributing my small part towards Born Free’s elephant sanctuary goal soon). That way I won’t have to ever find myself looking into the longing eyes of elephants like Dennis in the future, and wondering whether that leg he’s limping on can take the strain of performing circus tricks much longer.



The show still goes on…

At the beginning of June Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II spoke before Parliament to outline the political agenda for the next year.

fb 2Poised and ready for triumph, Born Free Foundation supporters waited for Her Majesty to raise attention to animals in circuses and the desperate need to make this practice illegal.

And waited.

And waited.

queen 1As the commotion of a Royal procession with footman dashing to Her aid signalled the end of proceedings, it was with a bitter taste that animal welfare campaigners were left to watch the political circus that ensued and the even more frenzied media circus (given that this was the last time the Queen will be in parliament before the 2015 general election) – whilst not a single nod was given to the cruel practices that occur in the circuses that we really wanted to talk about.

The ones that leave lionesses like Shada staring through the rusty bars of a 6ft by 6ft compartment of a squalid 18ft ‘beast wagon’, where she was solemnly caged alongside lioness Nalla and male lion Djunka, with whom she was used for breeding. Each compartment had been welded shut.

Shada at her new Shamwari home

Shada at her new Shamwari home

Shada is just one example of a strong and majestic creature reduced to the cruel and undignified confinement that comes hand in hand with circuses.

I’ve mentioned circuses some time ago, in a post highlighting the plight of circus lions through a hard-hitting ad campaign. I recently came across another poster design that brought the message home with similar impact – it’s hard to not feel something of a moral conscience with looking at images like this, surely?

public-social-ads-animals-96Personally, I’ve never been to a circus that uses performing animals – I remember watching an old documentary on Discovery Channel when I was pretty young, about circus cats and it was enough to put me off. I’ve seen the consequences and I have no desire to see the cause.

I just hope that the excellent work of the Born Free Foundation can help put an end to this barbaric practice.

bf fbI’ve followed their updates on this cause for a long time now and it seems every time the desired results of a ban come within reach, some kind of trap door opens, and so the struggle begins again.

Come on, it’s time we left the performance and draconian traditions to the ceremonial processions of Parliament – at least they choose to be there, even if they don’t stick to the script!


Circus lions – A little lion shows the bigger picture.

Firstly, apologies on the lack of blog posts the last two weeks – end of semester coursework dates have gotten the better of me.  But now I have a little more time, the issue on my mind this week is the thought of animals in circuses; or more specifically, performing Big Cats. On one of my earlier blogs I described how the sound of a lion’s roar sounding across Shamwari Game Reserve was one of the things that I loved about spending time on the reserve, so the thought of these powerful and majestic creatures being reduced to performing in a circus tent truly saddens me.

This issue is in the forefront of my mind after reading a Facebook post by the Born Free Foundation which linked to an article about them backing a 4 year old boy’s wish to ban the use in animals in circuses.

According to the British publication; “The Guardian”, an independent paper, prepared for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in 2008 found there were 47 wild animals being used in UK “big top” circuses, of which 11 were big game cats.

Although many people feel that the use of animals in circuses in traditional and provides “family fun”, what goes on behind the scenes is more like a horror movie.

At many of these circuses, lions are kept in tiny cramped cages, their teeth removed and claws cut off. Some, like Born Free’s Sinbad, have their growth severely stunted by being kept in such small enclosures and poor conditions. I visited Sinbad several times at the Julie Ward Sanctuary in Shamwari and fell in love with this tiny lion. Sinbad is about half the size of a regular lion – which is something that takes a little getting used to when you first see him. I wonder how many other lions (or any big cat for that matter) have to face years of being in an enclosure far too small for them?  And for the sake of ‘family entertainment’?

Sinbad, in his Born Free enclosure

What do you think – is it time we broke tradition and allowed lions, Big Cats and other performing animals to live free?