It was fair to say that this was one of the more curious professional situations in which Mr Decimus Burton had found himself. Naturally he did not say. With a calm manner that belied his tender age, he took an almost imperceptible step backwards while simultaneously removing his hat, which had been left teetering atop his head at a precarious angle by the animal’s sudden attack. He thus prevented the distracting eventuality of it dropping to the floor.

The monkey, having lost the advantage of surprise with its first failed attempt to cause precisely that – or, better still, to claim the black silk hat for himself – swiftly retreated to the pole in the corner to which it was shackled. It swung itself onto the cross-perch atop it and there it sat, furry legs dangling, chain swinging, dark eyes glaring. The creature was clearly furious, having failed to elicit even the consolation prize of a satisfying squeal from his unwitting victim; a truly rare occurrence for uninitiated visitors to the offices of the Zoological Society of London at 33 Bruton Street.

The monkey – an infant wanderoo, it had been pointed out upon their entry to the room – now innocently stroked the impressive white beard framing its face while sizing up his peculiar adversary. Decimus Burton: tall, slim and adequately handsome, high forehead balanced by large, earnest eyes and a strong nose. Ever the professional, Mr Burton pressed on. He was determined to ignore the creature, even though it was clearly pausing only to plot its next move. He would wait to put his hat on again, thus allowing him to finish the conversation in which he was engaged with his client without further distraction. It was now apparent that he had been a trifle premature in putting it on anyway. Mr Nicholas Aylward Vigors, Secretary of the Society, had not yet finished summarizing the outcome of the previous evening’s committee meeting. In short, the Marquess of Lansdowne had agreed to take over the Presidency, vacant these past nine months, and the Society was now ready to proceed with the menagerie in the Regent’s Park. Mr Burton’s job was to turn the designs he had drawn up for Sir Stamford Raffles last June into brick and stone, wood and iron reality.

Mr Vigors was a barrister by training and an ornithologist by passion. It was a somewhat curious marriage of interests on the surface, though the contrary deportments expected of each occupation obscured their many commonalities: the pursuit of knowledge, of truths hidden in minute detail, for frameworks to unite fragments. The somewhat dogmatic Vigors had adopted the manners demanded by his paid profession, rather than those of his hobby. He now addressed the young man as if he were in a court of law, oblivious to the rather less formal confines of an office shared with an outrageously mischievous, if temporarily vanquished, monkey. Nodding, and making the occasional note, Mr Burton silently calculated the distance he now stood from the supernaturally still creature versus the perceived length of the chain that hung loosely betwixt its leather girdle and the pole. He took a small step to the right and towards the desk that lay between himself and Mr Vigors, adorned with his own designs for the laying out of the Society’s Gardens, ostensibly to study the plans more closely. Yes, that ought to do it. He was safe now.

The Zoo: The Wild and Wonderful Tale of the Founding of London Zoo: 1826-1851