Life & Culture

The Jew who runs the zoo: Former UK ambassador to Israel on what it's like running London Zoo

Britain’s first Jewish ambassador to Israel has got his dream job in Regent's Park


There could scarcely be a bigger contrast between the role for which he is best known by the Jewish community — British ambassador to Israel — and Matthew Gould’s latest post, as director-general of the Zoological Society of London.

Gone are the sharp suits of the career diplomat he once was: this incarnation of Gould is a man comfortable in his own skin, complete with zoo-branded zipper jacket, and a giant rucksack accompanying him on his travels around the country.

Between being Britain’s first Jewish ambassador to Israel and his arrival at London Zoo, Gould was initially the government’s first director-general for digital and media — in charge of cyber security — and then chief executive of NHSX, leading the digital transformation of health and building the award-winning NHS Covid Pass.

But now, he freely admits, he is “in my dream job. I love animals, they are so very straightforward. In Israel, we had a house full of animals. Home life has always revolved around children and animals.

"So this is brilliant in that respect.”

At home in Somerset he and his wife Celia have two daughters, both born in Israel, and “three dogs (including one failed Israeli guide dog), one cat (rescued as a kitten in Ramat Gan), two horses, one of which is from Even Yehuda, five Shetland sheep, 27 chickens, and two hives of bees.”

Gould, 51, was a Foreign Office high-flyer who served as principal private secretary to the former foreign secretary David Miliband.

He is the youngest of three brothers, brought up in Wembley, North London. “First we went to Harrow and Wembley Liberal shul,” he says “then to Middlesex New Synagogue.” He took a degree in philosophy and divinity at Cambridge University, then joined the Foreign Office in 1993.

He once told the JC that “friends and family queued up to say that it (the Foreign Office) was a nest of antisemitism”. But it was something he never experienced.

Aged just 26 and working as a speechwriter for Robin Cook, foreign secretary in Tony Blair’s first Cabinet, Gould was made MBE. Cook hosted and convened the first London Nazi gold conference in 1997.

As a diplomat, before his Israel posting, Gould served in Islamabad in Pakistan, and Tehran where he was Britain’s deputy head of mission.

He “made a point of going to shul in Tehran. It was both a means of expressing support to Jews there and putting down a marker to the Iranian government that there was a watching brief on how it treated its minorities.”

But when he left the civil service, Gould says, “I was looking for a job which made a difference, something I believed in. The mission of ZSL, that we are genuinely helping to save species from extinction, absolutely ticks that box.”

There are clues in Gould’s earlier life that he and the zoo would become best friends. Before his foreign service postings, he did ecological research in Tanzania and published research on the feeding preferences of termites.

He’s a long-standing member of the ZSL, and Whipsnade (which also falls under the ZSL umbrella) was a frequent destination for the Gould family when they lived in Hertfordshire.

For as long as he can remember, Gould says, on his frequent trips to, or cycling past, London Zoo, he thought it would be “a fantastic job to run that organisation”.

His predecessor, Dominic Jermey, is an old friend who is also a former diplomat — he was British ambassador to Afghanistan before joining the zoo in 2017.

Ruefully, Gould recounts a conversation that he had in London with Israel’s future prime minister, Yair Lapid, when Jermey got the job five years ago, telling him how much he would have liked the role.

Lapid advised his friend: “Jews don’t run zoos.” Gould did not agree — and so when Jermey decided to move on and the zoo was looking for a successor, Gould leapt at the opportunity.

Now, a scant three months after taking over, he says: “It’s a fabulous job, a wonderful organisation. The mission is incredibly important for the planet, and we have the opportunity to make a serious difference in the life of London, and in the state of wildlife globally.”

Though he was familiar with the zoo from the outside, there were some surprises on the inside, not least, he says, “the quality of the science and the impact that the conservation is having.

For example, we are doing more than anyone in the world to receive different pangolin species, or the impact we are having in Kenya, on rhino poaching, or we are involved in the restoration of mangroves in the Philippines. The impact is fantastic and has been a wonderful surprise, on the upside.”

He is impressed, too, by “the sense of mission” among the zoo’s 800 employees. “I’ve never worked in an organisation with such a strong sense of purpose, even down to discovering that the soft toys in the shop are made from recycled plastic and that most of them are co-created with the animal experts, so the toys actually look like the animals they are supposed to represent. In details big and small, ZSL is pleasantly surprising.”

On the downside — well, the downside is always money, or a lack thereof. The Zoological Society of London is an independent charity, set up in 1826, under Royal Charter and receives no government funding.

The figures to maintain the two zoos and the research institute are eye-watering: a yearly total budget of £80 million, £50 million of which comes from admission and purchases made (by the public) in the zoos.

Ten million pounds comes from membership, a further ten million from grants for individual conservation and science projects, and the last ten million needs to be raised from fund-raising and donations. Gould is expected to be responsible for the fund-raising tranche of the budget.

“We are unique in the world,” says Gould, “for having that particular combination of zoos, global conservation projects, and the Institute of Science.” ZSL also has the Institute of Zoology founded by Prince Philip and his great friend, Lord (Solly) Zuckerman, which has 140 scientists working in research on conservation biology.

“That’s fantastic, because it means that what we do is science-driven and very focused on having an impact on nature — but it does mean we have high overheads.”

Gould understands those who say that zoos are an anachronism, that no animals should be caged. But he is a strong believer in the work of the ZSL in conservation, in pioneering breeding programmes and saving species, work impossible in the wild.

“Every animal in the zoo is here for one of two reasons. Either, because having them here is helpful scientifically in understanding how we can best look after that species, or, they are here for conservation reasons. In our zoos we have 16 species now extinct in the wild, and well over 100 species that are endangered in the wild. So the importance of zoos is as a refuge for species that are deeply threatened in the wild.

For example, the Sumatran tiger: there are only about 300 still in the wild, an incredibly small population. One of our scientists co-ordinates their global breeding programmes, and we had three Sumatra tiger cubs born here earlier this year. They are wonderful for kids to see them play, but more important those cubs are part of a global programme which ensures that Sumatran tigers continue to exist.”

Gould is also deeply conscious of the education value of zoos. A million visitors a year go to London Zoo, and just under that number to Whipsnade.

“Huge numbers of them are kids. We know that coming here and seeing the animals for real has an enormous impact on the children, in their understanding of wildlife. And it would be a real shame if the only people who could see animals up close were those rich enough to go on safari.”

The zoo doesn’t pay for the animals it houses, nor traps them in the wild. Instead there is a sort of gigantic global swap shop, in which zoos all over the world transfer animals in co-ordinated breeding programmes.

Just recently London received a silverback gorilla from a zoo in Tenerife; and a baby giraffe was born in Whipsnade. Meanwhile, a London Zoo baby hippo went off to another collection.

Gould has not cut his connections with Israel completely. We spoke on the eve of a long-desired family holiday in the country, and he was planning to visit “old friends” at the Ramat Gan Safari Park.

“ZSL is a member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which means we work collaboratively with zoos across the world to preserve threatened species — through sharing our animal care expertise and taking part in vital global breeding programmes.

ZSL are members of EAZA, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, so we have good working relationships with Haifa Zoo, Hai Park, Zoological Centre in Ramat Gan and the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens, who are also full members of EAZA. Through EAZA we work on co-operative breeding programmes and critical conservation work.”

In May 2019, London sent two female grey slender loris to the Tisch Gardens in Jerusalem, part of a European Endangered Species Programme.

The zoo has also had good links with zoos in conflict zones, not least Kabul Zoo in Afghanistan, providing support and advice wherever possible.
Gould has ambitious ideas for his zoo empire, vowing to do as much as possible to put them on a firm financial footing and hoping to expand the use of the sites more effectively.

After all, he says, to have 36 acres of prime real estate in Central London, and a staggering 600 acres in Whipsnade, means he has two remarkable platforms from which to broadcast the ZSL message. He’s keen, he says, on the restoration of species native to Britain, such as the dormouse or the red squirrel.

“We can really help restore them to strength,” he says.

Gould is clear that the role of the zoo has changed. “It used to be about animal stamp-collecting, one of this, one of that, but we don’t do that any more, and we don’t have animals on a whim.”

In fact, he says, there are a number of species that London doesn’t have because they are not needed in a conservation or breeding programme. Just the same, he admits that if he could have any animal not currently represented at London Zoo, it would be the koala bear, for which he retains a particular fondness.

And there is one last admission from the former ambassador. Though he says he is “surrounded by vegans” — though it’s not clear whether that is at home or at work — the proximity to the animals has not led Matthew Gould to change his diet.

“For now, it remains the same,” he says with a grin. The “Jew in the zoo” is a very happy man.

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