Edinburgh Zoo re-opens today and we’ve got pandas to visit! – Christine Jardine

The work done by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland at Edinburgh Zoo cannot be under-estimated, writes Christine Jardine MP.
Christine Jardine plans to visit the pandas at Edinburgh Zoo (Picture: Ian Georgeson)Christine Jardine plans to visit the pandas at Edinburgh Zoo (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
Christine Jardine plans to visit the pandas at Edinburgh Zoo (Picture: Ian Georgeson)

I have an appointment to arrange today. One that has taken on a huge significance over the past week as the beginning of a return to normality became possible.

From today, we can start getting out and about again and supporting our local businesses. There is a dress I want from South Queensferry, a coffee shop whose closed doors have been frustrating me for weeks and a hairdresser I am longing to visit.

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But close to the top of my list is a neighbour. Not just any neighbour, but one who provides a home to many of Edinburgh’s favourite residents, regularly hosts educational trips for local school children and makes an invaluable contribution to the planet’s conservation.

Edinburgh Zoo is re-opening.

I admit I also get a sense of personal satisfaction from knowing that the petition which I launched with MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton and thousands of you signed – thank you – helped to make it possible.

But the significance of supporting the 111-year-old institution that is the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, reaches much further, and goes much deeper, than a day out for the family, or a jolly wheeze for local politicians.

Four years after the RZSS was established, it opened Edinburgh Zoo. It’s birthday is next month on 22 July.

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In the intervening century, it has become one of Europe’s leading centres of conservation, education and research. It is also part of the world’s third-most influential conservation group.

It is still the only zoo in the United Kingdom with a Royal Charter.

The thought earlier this month, which prompted the petition, that it might face a financial crisis if it was not able to re-open over the summer was, for me, unacceptable.

No more unacceptable than all the other employers and businesses who now face an enormous challenge to recover from the impact of this virus, but one that we should not overlook, partly because of its 300 employees and the welfare of its animal population.

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But it is an organisation and employer which can also provide a vital service to welfare of the city’s human population as we reach for recovery from Covid-19.

A number of people have told me that they would feel just as safe, in some cases safer, visiting the zoo because it is outdoors, than going inside a major supermarket.

Having had a sneak preview of the safety plans for when they are open, I agree that the zoo is going to enormous lengths to try to protect visitors’ physical health.

From restricting the number of tickets sold online per day, to closing all indoor enclosures, restricting catering to take-away only and limiting access to toilets to one family at a time they are doing everything in their power.

And of course there are the hand sanitisers, face masks and acrylic shields at retail points to which we are all become accustomed.

Then there is our mental health. For those who have only been in their house or on their state-sanctioned walk, the thought of “everything getting back to normal” can be as scary as the prospect of staying home for 23 hours a day seemed just a few weeks ago.

I know some companies have arranged socially distanced pet therapy for their staff and I have found having a puppy to look after and exercise a huge bonus in this.

For families with school-aged children now released early from the classes but running out of stimulation at home, the open space and variety of penguins, bears, big cats, birds offers a fantastic alternative. Education, exercise and fresh air all in the one place.

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And as we now move through the phases of re-emerging, the lines are blurred between the new-look world we might encounter and what we took for granted before. A period of adjustment is required. Places like the zoo can help there too.

Across Europe, zoos have also begun to re-open as the educational, physical and mental health benefits of being outside, breathing fresh air and taking in nature become important to our personal recovery. And are recognised by governments. Animals, exercise, the view, being in the company of others – safely of course – carries great power. I’ve worked closely with the RZSS in recent weeks and they are also a family. In times of crisis, families and communities support each other.

We have excelled at that these past few months as this virus has attacked our society in ways that we are only just beginning to realise.

In some ways, the zoo represents many of those areas: employers, our tourist industry are part of the capital’s very identity.

But it is also, in its own right, the world leading environmental and conservation charity that I alluded to earlier.

The work done by RZSS cannot be underestimated. At home they are pursuing the survival of the Scottish wildcat while elsewhere their experts are assisting threatened species on their journey back to the wild.

They also have fantastic projects on genetic management and veterinary health, and protect wild places by supporting amazing local conservation organisations. When the First Minister seemed convinced a few weeks ago that it should remain closed, even though zoos south of the border would be reopening, I feared all of that value was being overlooked.

Fortunately common sense, and the power of public opinion, prevailed. And now I can make that appointment. There are two pandas I haven’t seen for a while.

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Christine Jardine is the Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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