Dr Jonathan Gipps, OBE

Doctor of Science

22 February 2011 - Orator: Dr Jon Bridle

Mr Vice Chancellor,

We often hear talk of “the hallmark” of a great artist or scientist, poet or politician, something that distinguishes their work from the more clumsy travails of others. In this respect, Dr Jo Gipps, our honorary graduand, has been very astute. Early on in his career he patented his own hallmark as a silversmith, quickly acquiring a reputation for making delicate silver boxes and jewellery. He is also a skilful fly fisherman, spending hours fashioning threads and feathers into exquisite lures to snatch trout from fast moving rivers, casting into calm edges and then stealthily moving upstream.  Jo is also a devotee of Baroque opera, with its delicate coupling of comedy and tragedy; its conjuring of something magnificent from ideas that seem at first to be fractured and conflicting.

It is not, of course, for these passions that Jo is receiving an honorary doctorate from this University. Jo Gipps is here with us today as one of the most influential leaders in the international zoo community. He is here as someone who not only saved London Zoo from extinction in the early 1990s, but as someone who has actively transformed the perception of Zoos from soulless 19th century menageries into beacons of conservation, education, and sustainability.  To me, these achievements are testament to the skills reflected in his delicate engineering of silver or hand-tied flies: his commitment to seeing potential in disarray; and his resolve in teasing apparently tangled threads apart to create something new and profound. Of course, when dealing with real people and their real personalities, charm, levity, and grace are also crucial for success. On the strength of his great successes, Jo is clearly blessed with all three.

Jonathan Henry William Gipps was born in XXXX[JB2] , the son of XXXXX[JB3] . He attended Oundle School near Peterborough, and from 1965 to 1969 served as an Engineer Officer in the Royal Navy.  He graduated in Zoology at Imperial College, London in 1973, got his PhD in 1977, and spent nearly a decade studying animal ecology, particularly the consequences of social behaviour in voles and mice for the dynamics and behaviour of populations. Jo then worked as Education Officer at Kingston Polytechnic until 1988, when he became Curator of Mammals at London Zoo, rising to Senior Curator in 1991, and then to Director of London Zoo in 1993.

William Blake wrote that “great things are done when men and mountains meet”. London Zoo in the early 1990s was indeed such a mountain. A very expensive mountain doomed if not for demolition then certainly for a very lengthy and painful dismemberment. Weakened by years of under-investment, and hamstrung by its illustrious past, the Zoo was officially declared extinct on 17th June 1992, and all its public funding cut. However, less than a year later, London Zoo announced its first profit in 17 years. Jo, who had originally been appointed to oversee its orderly demise, instead became the director who masterminded its rebirth into a new type of zoo, one that not only conducted science and conservation in the field, but also engaged with the wider public to bring the lessons from that conservation home.

Jo is characteristically modest about his role in saving London Zoo, citing a donation from the Emir of Kuwait as a key salvation. However, another crucial event occurred on New Year’s Eve 1992, when 27 year old Ben Silock climbed into the lions’ enclosure with the apparent intention of sharing two Christmas turkeys with them. Although seized by one of the lions, both he and the lion survived, saved by the keepers who used only a fire extinguisher and warning shots to scare the lion away. Jo’s handling of the event was masterful. He told the press “I believe this man owes his life to the quick actions of my staff. There is no question of the lion being put down. He behaved exactly as any lion would.” This calmness, and his acute instinct for the mood of the public did much to improve the standing of the Zoo, and renew its reputation as a place where animals were treated with respect.

In the months and years that followed, Jo’s tremendous energy, tenacity and vision were critical in forging a new philosophy for the newly-branded Zoological Society of London, and continuing to transform its perception by the public. He made its science and wildlife conservation work central to its publicity; every leaflet or poster was tagged “conservation in action”. I remember seeing one such poster on the underground particularly well. It said “Without zoos, you might as well tell these animals to get stuffed”.

Jo’s great achievements at London Zoo earned him an OBE in 2000. In 2001, Jo accepted the position as Director of Bristol Zoo Gardens, and we Bristolians become fortunate enough to be the main recipient of his unbridled enthusiasm and inspiration. Here, Jo’s energy quickly became integral to a city already celebrated as a global centre for biology and conservation, not only with the world’s oldest provincial zoo - this year enjoying its 175 anniversary - but also the world-renowned BBC Natural History Unit, Wildscreen, and a world-class Biological Sciences department.

By this time, as a result largely of Jo’s vision, zoos throughout the world were being challenged to aspire to a new model. At Bristol Zoo, what had once been rather dry inventories of animals’ names and weights blossomed into fascinating explorations of ecology and behaviour, as well as documents of the terrifying rate of loss of their natural habitat.  There has been a shift in focus from the saving of a few charismatic mammals into a wider appreciation of biodiversity and an urgent demand for worldwide habitat protection. Rather than being places to gawk at strange animals, zoos have become somewhere where people’s minds were fed and their perceptions challenged. Zoos now capitalise on world class science and their own field conservation activities to connect with people enticed by the exotic, and try to make them think instead about their local environment, and how they could change their lifestyles to slow biodiversity loss and climate change. As chairman of the Bristol Natural History Consortium, Jo coordinated the city’s annual Festival of Nature and Communicate Festival, as well as its role as National Coordinator in the National Bioblitz scheme, where local people are given the scientific expertise to explore the huge biodiversity in their own backyards.

Jo has also spearheaded plans for new ways that humans can interact with animals, their habitats,  and their stories. Fundraising finally begun last year for his ambitious plan for the UK’s first National Wildlife Conservation Park at Almondsbury. This is due to open in 2017, and will give the public the chance to see animals in surroundings close to their real habitats, including African and Asian forest, coral reef, European woodland and Savannah.

Most recently, through his involvement in the Bristol Green Capital Momentum Group, Jo has championed a wider link between conservation and sustainability. Such a link finally recognises ecosystems and the biodiversity they contain as the crucial resource on which all economies depend, instead of as a luxury that somehow stands in the way of making a quick profit. Such a shift is crucial given that the relentless application of the latter view has resulted in the loss of at least half of tropical biodiversity in the last 50 years, and wild populations of fish that look set to collapse within our children’s lifetimes. Such a model means that we in the UK still demand cheap food and cheap oil, yet throw away more than a third of the food we buy, food which itself costs several times more energy to grow than it supplies in calories.

As chair of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums conservation and sustainability committee, Jo oversaw the production of their conservation strategy in 2005, and is currently preparing their sustainability strategy.  He has put such issues into practice at Bristol Zoo, becoming the first zoo in the UK to feed seals and humans alike only on sustainably-sourced fish.

Jo retired as Director of Bristol Zoo late last year, following a string of lifetime achievement awards from British and European Associations of Zoos. In his retirement, he plans to continue his active role in Bristol’s cultural and charitable life, including as trustee for the SS Great Britain and St Georges, and as President of the Anchor Society, who work to alleviate poverty and loneliness amongst the elderly. He and his wife Caroline – also an honorary graduate from this University, and whom we welcome today - also plan to spend time living in Greece, Venice and Paris, where I’m sure Jo will be able to apply his characteristic enthusiasm and tenacity to exploring the art, culture and wine of these sublime places.

The first time I met Jo, as a young scientist at a London Zoo was at a drinks reception, he told me that he made a lifetime vow early on never to refuse a glass of champagne, on the grounds that it is always offered in a spirit of celebration, hope and humanity. This impressed me very much, and I for one, look forward to seeing him honour this special vow at various points during the celebrations this afternoon and evening.

Mr Vice Chancellor, I present to you Jonathan Henry William Gipps as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.

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