“Zoology gave way to first-aid and fire-fighting courses …”

Keepers’ Wartime Garden at the Zoo: World War Zoo Project Blog 5:

Reading seed packets, garden magazines  not wildlife books for a change …

 Odd reading matter has been piling up of late on my desk at Newquay Zoo. Animal reference books have been replaced by history books, old gardening magazines, recipe books and wartime diaries from the 1940s. An old but working stirrup pump for firefighting is propped up against my desk.

Eyewitness accounts of wartime zoos: The Artist L.R. Brightwell

L.R. Brightwell, regular London Zoo visitor, writer and illustrator recalled of the events of 1938: “With the scales fast falling from our eyes we first cheered, then groaned, at the tragedy of Munich …”

Neville Chamberlain’s famous words ‘Peace in Our Time’ were spoken after returning from his Munich meeting with the ‘German Chancellor Herr Hitler’,  declaring “I have in my hand a piece of paper.” This averted war (as we now know) for only a short time. Air raid trenches were already being dug in the grass and mud of London squares.  I often wonder how the keepers, zoo staff and visitors in London, around Britain and around the world were feeling in this uncertain time.

“But with the beginning of 1939 reality was brought home at last. Beneath its canopy of blimps [anti-aircraft or barrage balloons] London set about evacuation, the building of underground retreats, the distribution of gas masks.

Zoology gave way to first-aid and fire-fighting courses…

When on September 3rd the long expected blow fell, an emergency committee was set up. With a big cash balance in hand the [Zoological Society of London] was confident that it could “see it through” …

In deference to public hysteria the poisonous snakes were decapitated … The panda, elephants and African Rhinoceros were evacuated to Whipsnade …

In company with all other places of entertainment etc. where crowds might gather to the risk of public safety, the zoo closed its gates …” The Zoo Story,  L.R. Brightwell, p. 225-6.

So when does the digging begin at Newquay Zoo?

Already wartime gardening books and a few tips from gardening magazines have given us our summer seed planting lists, tracked down in local garden centres.  Herbs, salad crops, tomatoes, both late cropping varieties and early winter crops will give us the freshest food for animal use. Sunflowers will provide both colour and useful animal enrichment, plucking the seeds out of the flower heads being good for both birds and monkeys. Some sympathetic planting of marigolds should keep some garden pests at bay.

There are lots more interesting stories to tell about zoos, their people and animals in wartime. Watch this space and keep on reading …

Note: Our World War Zoo Gardens project will be a practical living memorial, almost history that you can eat in the form of a wartime “dig for victory garden” being recreated at Newquay Zoo in Cornwall www.newquayzoo.org.uk.  

More news of this project follows over the next few weeks as we prepare the ground and get planting.

Watch this space!

Mark Norris, World War Zoo Project team, Newquay Zoo, Cornwall, UK

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