‘It’s an act of greed’: hundreds protest over Bristol zoo closure | Bristol

Seven-year-old friends Lilah and Inti – dressed as a lion and leopard respectively – were among the most vocal of the protesters. They marched through the streets of Clifton in Bristol shoulder to shoulder, chanting, “Leave our zoo alone! Hands off our zoo!” They paused only to discuss what their favourite animals had been – and decided on the butterflies. “They were so pretty and would land on you,” said Lilah.

The pair were among hundreds of people, young and old, who took part in a demonstration on Sunday calling for the reversal of a decision to close Bristol Zoo Gardens.

Leaders of the protest claim that the zoo’s move to an out-of-town spot in south Gloucestershire is being undertaken to make money from the sale of the Clifton site to developers, who will build luxury housing in one of south-west England’s most desirable neighbourhoods.

Lilah’s mother, Emma Dowds, carried a placard asking which Bristol site would go next – the Clifton suspension bridge, perhaps? “We love the zoo,” she said. “We’ve learned so much from it and have so many happy memories. It seems a crime to take away this incredible space. It’s been loved by the public for 186 years – all that history. What is going to replace it is homes that are unaffordable for most people. It’s an act of complete greed.”

Rosemary Thomas, 73, a retired smallholder, who had fashioned herself a headdress out of peacock feathers, said: “We’ve all had so much pleasure over the years taking our children and grandchildren there. The idea of a zoo in the city is lovely. I can see the objections for having large animals in cages, but there’s no reason we can’t develop it in a different way and still have the ethos of the zoo – community, research, pleasure for people. It’s a great focal point for the city.”

Protesters on the march in Clifton. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

Jane Powell took her eight-year-old son William along. He wore a lion costume, she a lemur tail and mouse mask. “I’ve never been on a march before,” she said. “We’re not saying the zoo should be the same. Having lions here isn’t great, but to lose the zoo from Bristol is awful.”

The Clifton gardens shut to visitors last autumn, and since then the animals that are not being taken to the new site have been being shipped out.

A landmark moment came this month when the two Asiatic lions, Sahee and Sonika, whose roars used to be part of the Clifton soundscape, left Bristol for their new home at the Big Cat Sanctuary in Kent.

Bristol Zoological Society, the charity that runs the zoo, argues that the move makes sense from a financial, conservation and animal welfare point of view.

Justin Morris, the zoo’s chief executive, said it had been forced to think about change because of finances, and had realised that it could provide more space for the animals it kept – and better fulfil its conservation objectives.

So while, for example, the lions have been lost, it has decided to have threatened black rhinoceros at the new site, being developed at the zoo’s existing Wild Place Project. The western lowland gorillas – a Bristol Zoo Gardens favourite – will definitely be moving to south Gloucestershire because of their conservation value.

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Protesters’ placards. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

“I absolutely get the point about Bristol Zoo Gardens being a special place,” Morris said. “We’re very conscious that people have strong feelings about the zoo closing. It wasn’t an easy decision.”

The plan is to give the public continued access to the gardens, with the new homes built mainly where there are currently structures, but protesters are worried that eventually this access will be lost.

Those against the closure also say trees will be chopped down – though the zoo insists it is planting more than it is removing – and a herbaceous border where bereaved Bristolians have scattered loved ones’ ashes will be bulldozed.

Addressing the protesters at the locked zoo gates, Tom Jones, a musician and one of the leaders of the Save Bristol Zoo Gardens campaign, said: “Over that wall are some of the most beautiful botanical gardens I’ve seen. We’re not allowed in. Why? Because a tiny minority of people took a highly subjective decision to close our zoo.”

Councillors are expected to meet next month to discuss the development plans. Addressing them directly, Jones said: “If you decide to change these gardens into luxury housing, history will not be your friend.”