Two minutes of silence and remembrance, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, climate change and some vegetable theiving.

We will at Newquay Zoo, like many in workplaces across Britain and the Commonwealth,  stop work again at 11 o’clock, Wednesday the 11th November 2009 to remember the moment when the First World War came to an end.

Life returned to not quite the same for many zoo keepers and their families after the war, only for the same upheaval, disruption  and loss of life to happen all over again tragically in 1939 on  much wider scale. Then came the austerity of the postwar world where building materials and food resources were in short supply. Many people were hungry or ‘displaced’ (DP) and housed in enclosures in empty zoo gardens across Europe, movingly depicted in photographs in the Imperial War Museum image collection (accessible via their website).  

‘Scratch’ vegetable gardens sprang up on bomb sites and DP camps all over Europe. Similar ones are illustrated in Kenneth Helphand’s inspiring and moving book Defiant Gardens, recently published. Food became precious and in some cases, more rationed post-war as it had to be shared out across the whole of Europe against the challenging climate background of bitter winters. In a small way, our experience of nursing tiny seeds through to lanky Cabbage shoots, watching out for frost  and on to the beautiful, rain-bejewelled,  leafy and slug-threatened whorls of leaves that they now are in our wartime garden makes you appreciate food a little bit more.

Many of our colleagues in European zoos will be thinking about another momentous event whose anniversary falls this week, the fall of  the Berlin Wall and the massive changes across Eastern Europe 20 years ago in 1989. (Can it really be already 20 years ago?) This opened up many opportunities to zoo staff in Eastern Europe of freedom to travel and share experiences but came at the cost of collapsing economies affecting the resources of the state and national zoos.

Zoo keeping is, by its nature,  a very generous international community  with the shared global role of protecting endangered animals, their habitats and the wider environment. We look forward to researching or hearing more stories from our colleagues in Eastern Europe, including ex-Newquay zoo staff Steve Pilcher working at Kiev in the Ukraine, where local people hid the zoo animals in their homes  during wartime to keep them safe. Incredible stories also include the Polish zoo staff who hid Jewish refugees in the zoo set out in Diane Ackerman’s  The ZooKeeper’s Wife, using a surviving diary. A diary well worth reading.

 I have always been impressed and humbled at European zoo conferences (including in the former East Germany) when speaking to colleagues from the Eastern European zoos that survived the collapse of the Soviet Union.  We spaek of not having much financial resources etc in British zoos, but in comparison how much has been achieved with little or no resources, apart from lots of volunteers and community support along with imagination and skilled knowledge from themselves and supportive zoos overseas.

Even a little money regularly over time and some excellent sharing and training can sometimes make a big difference for animals, people and habitats. You can see this inaction with the civets and pangolin conservation success of the Small Carnivore Project (see in Vietnam, another area famously ravaged by conflict in recent times.  

And now zoos working together and supporting each other around the world, even remotely by e-mail and internet, face an even wider challenge of climate change, habitat loss and resource shortages on a global scale. 

Maybe our tiny wartime zookeepers’ vegetable garden will be a small part in a ‘grow your own’, self-sufficient, local food miles and zoo poo compost recycling movement  to grow fresh animal food just like our wartime colleagues did.

Peacocks are thieving carrots out of the ground,along with iceberg lettuce – luckily some of these can be replanted and we are hoping the first frosts here hold off so our salad lasts longer into the winter.

So at 11 a.m., I shall be quietly standing at the wartime garden, looking at our poppy cross and remembering the cost of food and  freedom  …


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