World War Zoo
Published: Dec 2, 2014On Remembrance Day in the historic centenary of the First World War, it’s worth sparing a thought for the world’s zoos which faced their own battles for survival during times of major conflict. Our Education Manager Mark Norris has uncovered a treasure trove of stories, letters, archives and artefacts since launching his World War Zoo project five years ago.
In the Second World War many dangerous animals, from poisonous snakes to polar bears, had to be destroyed in wartime to avoid the risk of them escaping from bomb damaged enclosures. Luckier animals were evacuated to rural zoos like Whipsnade or Newquay’s sister zoo at Paignton, which housed part of the Chessington Zoo collection.
When Belfast Zoo was blitzed, staff were told all the animals would have to be destroyed in case the Luftwaffe returned later that night. A female keeper, later dubbed the “Elephant Angel” took the elephants home with her and looked after them in the backyard of her suburban home. At Budapest Zoo, only 15 out of thousands of animals survived, including four hippos which took sanctuary in the city’s thermal spas. Dead zoo animals were eaten and others were killed for their meat during the bloody 100-day siege of the city. In WW1, 90 out of London Zoo’s 1,150 staff were called up to fight or do munitions work and 12 were killed. The animals were left in the care of older members of staff, women and children.
Mark says: “In both world wars, zoo staff found some quite ingenious ways to feed, care for and protect the animals often in the most dire of circumstances. Many years on, zoos and botanic gardens face new global challenges including climate change, conflict, habitat loss and the extinction of species around the world. Modern day zoos can learn a lot of lessons from those wartime zoo staff.”
- Visitors and staff observed two minutes silence at 11am today to commemorate the anniversary of the ceasefire of 11 o'clock on 11 November 1918.