LONDON • It was a zoo out there. One man poured beer on a tiger. Another tore off his shirt and tried to enter a penguin pool.

Music blared and drinks flowed.

Those were some of the scenes described during the 2014 season of London Zoo’s late-night, adults-only event, which is billed as a way to bring people closer to the animals outside regular zoo hours.

Admission tickets for the Friday sessions, which run every summer and are called Zoo Nights, start at £20 (S$35) and more than £1 million in revenue has been generated since 2017.

The funds go towards international conservation programmes and efforts to combat the illegal wildlife trade and habitat loss.

But activists say the mix of alcohol and music at the sessions – this year’s event began last Friday – is detrimental to the animals. Many have called for the sessions to be cancelled.

Mr Jordi Casamitjana, a senior campaign manager at animal rights group Peta in Britain, said the zoo was placing profit over animal welfare. “There’s no way you can organise these events without causing stress to the animals,” he said.

A petition calling for the event’s cancellation has garnered more than 100,000 signatures, citing problems that were detailed by British daily The Guardian in 2014.

After that report, authorities opened an inquiry but found no evidence of animal welfare violations.

London Zoo says opposition to the event is the result of “heavy sensationalised” news reports from previous years.

“No visitor ever injured an animal, nor got into an animal enclosure,” it said in a statement. “Zoo Nights, like all events held during the day or after hours, are carefully planned to ensure that our animals are always well looked after.”

Promoted as a chance to see “what the natural kingdom gets up to after hours”, the event allows visitors to take guided tours, attend talks by zookeepers, listen to live music and wander through stands in a festival-like atmosphere.

On the opening night of this year’s season – which runs for eight Fridays through July 26 – women dressed as zebras paced the grounds on stilts and lawn chairs encircled an acrobat.

Visitors sported animal ears and face paint and wandered – with drinks in hand – past enclosures of penguins, giraffes and tigers. Music pulsed from speakers.

Those in attendance on the opening night had mixed feelings.

Mr Daniel Wood, 25, said he had no major concerns about the event, despite his view that city zoos did not provide the best quality of life for animals.

“City zoos should be phased out. If you look around, it’s not a massive space,” he said.

But he was concerned about the pop music from the speakers. “It’s quite loud and I’m not sure how much the lion appreciates (singer) Dua Lipa,” he added.

Ms Lucy Forrest, 25, who came with her friends, said she trusted that the zoo was providing the best care possible for the animals.

Outside the zoo entrance, about a dozen protesters chanted: “Shame on you.” Some held signs saying: “Captivity is not captivating.”

Mr Donald Broom, emeritus professor of animal welfare at the University of Cambridge, praised the educational value of Zoo Nights, but said there was room for improvement. He felt the music should be turned off, for instance.

He said London Zoo had taken steps to improve animal housing and the site had greater space and more resources than many others around the world.

But zoos must do more, he added, including controlling human contact with the animals – a difficult balance for zoos to achieve when most visitors want to get as close as possible to the enclosures.


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