120606. Cape Town. Willem Jansen has been working with the Chimpanzee's at the Tygerberg Zoo for the past 30 years. Tygerberg Zoo, once a major tourist attraction and a hot spot for school educational outings, has been sold and will close down by the end of the year. Picture Henk Kruger/Cape Argus\

Cape Town’s Tygerberg Zoo has just had one of its busiest weekends in months.

After news of its imminent closure broke in the press last week, visitors streamed through the gates.

Some came for a nostalgic last glimpse of Tigger the tiger, while others had simply never known that there was a zoo in Cape Town. But as suddenly as they appeared, the visitors abandoned the zoo again. By mid-week there was not a soul in sight.

On a visit to the zoo yesterday, the Cape Argus found owner Lorraine Spence driving her four-wheeler across a vacant lot between enclosures. “Do you see now why it has come to this?”

Spence is saddened, but not surprised, at the failure of the zoo.

She predicted this day more than 10 years ago. The decline in popularity is a trend that can be observed at virtually every zoo in SA, she said.

Today, the zoo’s income amounts to less than half of its basic running costs. The 25-hectare facility has now been sold for an undisclosed sum.

“It’s very sad. This zoo was John’s dream, it was his life’s work,” she says.

The late John Spence, Lorraine’s husband and the founder of the zoo, was four years old when he told his mother he would build a zoo. Spence recalls how her husband’s obsession eclipsed the newly-wed couple’s honeymoon. “In 18 days we saw 19 zoos in England, Wales and Scotland.”

But soon the zoo became the centre of her life as well. In the last three decades, Spence has personally “adopted” seven orphaned or otherwise neglected baby chimpanzees. They slept in her bed at night.

Today, 11-year-old Emma, one of Spence’s former chimp babies, sits next to the fence of her enclosure. Rubbing her hand and speaking to her softly through the wire is Willem Jansen, a chimp carer who has worked at the zoo for 30 years. He is one of 24 staffers at the zoo.

Talk of the zoo’s closure brings tears to Jansen’s eyes, but he’ll be with his chimps for a while longer. They, along with the lions and tigers, are being transferred to a “fancy” new home at the Drakenstein Lion Park.

The zoo’s other animals will find homes in conservation areas around the country.

The nearly 40-year-old zoo will close down by the end of the year. - Cape Argus