“I haven’t been personally scared, or scared for my family, but I have been a bit chilled by the shift in the window of acceptable debate. It’s a sad part of the Jewish historical memory that environments and countries that had been thought to be benign and safe can turn quite quickly,” he says, speaking slowly and carefully. “There is a natural and understandable sensitivity there. If anything, I have probably gone the other way, having seen my parents be so sensitive to it, but there are definitely trends that worry me.”
You can understand why Gould might have wanted a break from politics, having moved from Israel back to Whitehall, then to NHSX, a government unit intended to help digitise NHS England, in 2019. The pandemic hit less than a year later, meaning Gould’s unit hurriedly created the contact-tracing app that was later replaced by an Apple/Google alternative.
“I found [that] trying to do really difficult things under immense pressure with a massive spotlight of public, internet, media and parliamentary scrutiny was really difficult,” he says of that time. Politics is tougher than it was in Cook’s day, he reckons. Or even in the time of George Osborne, a school friend and now neighbour in Somerset.
“I think it’s harder to be a public figure now. The respect has gone down. The suspicion and the scrutiny has [increased]. Back then you needed a thick skin, but now you have to be a pretty strong character to survive the presumption of ill intent and constant searching for evidence of wrongdoing. And the constant knowledge that at any point somebody might pour a bucket of ordure over your head.”
There are plenty of buckets of ordure around the zoo, though. Bahnu is still roaring. The spider monkeys are still being absolute monkeys. Gould’s daughters used to take no interest in his work, “other than hearing daddy giving a speech outside their bedroom window”, but “they think this is amazing, and they’re really quite proud”.
He stays in London for much of the week, working with animals, then travels back to Somerset for the weekend, where he… “works with animals, yes,” he says, smiling. “I was in Exmoor this weekend riding, then mucked out the chickens, then groomed the dogs. But it’s lovely, being outdoors and with animals, feeling like we’re doing something worthwhile.”
Days after the attacks in Israel on October 7, Gould sent a memo to all staff at ZSL to offer some comfort and leadership – especially for employees who live nearby in north London. “There is in Judaism a concept called tikkun olam – repairing the world. It’s a lovely notion – the duty [being] on all of us to help repair the damage that we have collectively wrought. One of the great rabbis taught [that] we are not required to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it,” Gould wrote. “It’s long felt to me that this is a compelling way of describing what we at ZSL do.”
Presumably it’s a job for life, then. “I don’t want to say forever, but I can’t see anything I’d rather be doing,” he says. Animals, I suppose, are easier to deal with than humans. He laughs. “It depends which humans…”