Zoo is still squawking 70 years on after opening

The year is 1934 and partition has taken hold in the North of Ireland. The world is in the throes of the deepest economic depression as millions eked out an existence in abject poverty.

Closer to home famous Belfast nationalist Joe Devlin had died at the beginning of the year and Belfast felt the pangs of the hungry thirties.

It was also in this year that Belfast Zoo opened its gates to the people of the city with children charged 4d – four old pence – and adults, sixpence.

That was 70 years ago and through the generations, Belfast Zoo and its surrounding area of Bellevue and Cavehill have been a much-loved institution in North Belfast.
The Zoo owes its origins to the old city trams – firstly horse drawn trams of the Belfast Street Tramway Company and later the steam tramway of the Cavehill and Whitewell Tramway company that carried passengers from Belfast to the outlying villages of Whitewell and Glengormley for day excursions.

When the lines were being taken out in the 1960s the subsidence from the Cavehill to the Antrim Road near Throne hospital was known to be so bad that the iron rails were left in the ground to slow down the creep of the Cavehill to Belfast Lough.
In 1911 the line had been taken over by the Belfast Corporation who decided to build a playground and pleasure gardens – Bellevue Gardens.

During the roaring ‘20s Bellevue was a popular destination for day excursions and, in 1933, it was decided to have a ‘zoological collection' on the site.

In 1934, twelve acres on either side of the Grand Floral Staircase were laid out as Bellevue Zoo. In the first year there were 290,000 visitors.

Raymond Robinson is the birdman of Belfast Zoo and gives talks on the history of the zoo, its past keepers and the various well-loved animals that have populated its cages throughout the 20th century.

One of the stories to which he has always been endeared is this picture (missing in online edition--two ladies with an elephant in their back garden).

“We think it’s somewhere and someone on the Whitewell Road,” says Raymond.

“That happened during the Second World War on the Whitewell Road. This elephant was called Sheila and she stayed at this house from 1941 to 1945. The animals had to be shot because of the German air raids and the threat to safety if dangerous ones got out. The two women took Sheila so she wouldn’t be destroyed and they looked after her.

“The first elephant was called Daisy and she was here for opening day in March 1934. But when they walked her down to Belfast docks from the zoo, she refused to get on the ship and she stayed. She was buried somewhere in what is now the lower carpark.”
Standing with one of the zoo’s exquisite Blue Eyed Cockatoos Raymond Donaldson says the purpose of zoos has changed through the years, and that is true of Belfast Zoo.
In the 1970 and 1980s the zoo underwent many changes.

“Things have changed in the types of cages the animals were kept in, but that doesn’t in any way mean they were treated badly. They were always treated well. An English animal dealer called George Chapman from Tottenham Court Road in London brought the zoo to Belfast.

“The Belfast Corporation wanted to have a zoo, but they needed people who knew how to run a zoo. It was a city pride thing for Belfast. Dublin had a zoo, London had one and Edinburgh as well. Chapman put £10,000 behind it and £8,000 came from the City Corporation.”

But near ruin came for the zoo after the German Luftwaffe struck in an Easter 1941 bombing.

“The Germans took the Waterworks for the Docks and bombed North Belfast close to the zoo. None of the animals were injured, but one bomb fell on Bellevue at the Pleasure Grounds. There was a lot of fear about wild animals escaping if bombs hit the zoo. The department of public safety gave the order to destroy the dangerous animals, but some of the animals that were shot weren’t known to be dangerous. A constable McMurray from Glengormley police station and members of the home guard had to carry out the shootings. It was a very sad day for the zoo. A large rodent and some vultures were killed, which is confusing as they carried no threat to public health.”
Now the animals live in the new grounds that stretch further over the Cavehill. But as part of the anniversary celebrations coming up at the end of this month, Raymond will be giving a tour on the old zoo that still has many of the original 1934 cages.
“Just because the animals have more space today doesn’t mean they were miserable in the old zoo. In 70 years to come, people will see the way it is now as old fashioned. At the start the people involved in the zoo knew exactly what they were doing.

“A lot of money was paid for the animals and it didn’t make financial sense to treat them badly and let them die of disease. Animal husbandry was as important as it is now. Now zoos fulfil a conservation role. We help breed endangered species which is what this Indonesian Cockatoo is. We also successfully bred a sea eagle recently, which was a terrific thing to be able to do. Animals are just like humans. You put a pair to breed in a cage and it’s just like you or I, they might hate each other’s guts,” laughs Raymond.

Belfast Zoo will be celebrating its 70 birthday on the weekend of August bank holiday, 28-30 August.

A fancy dress party on the 1930 fashion theme will take place hosted by the North Belfast Historical Society. There will be bouncy castles, feeding of the animals by zookeepers and tours of the old zoo.

Anyone with stories to tell of the old Bellevue or who can donate pictures of the old days can contact the zoo to contribute to the festivities. Phone 90776277 or 90774625.

The North Belfast News would be eager to find any person who remembers the opening or the first years of the zoo.

And we are appealing for anyone who can identify the two women looking after the elephant in the picture (missing here). Call the newsdesk on 90584444 or email andrea@irelandclick.com

Journalist:: Andrea McKernon

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