This Dunkirk anniversary weekend, there have many tearful old men (and not forgetting the women who love them) remembering the hell of the beaches of Dunkirk and the ‘miracle’ of their escape by sea in small boats back to Blighty 70 years ago. Many were left behind, wounded or imprisoned as Europe was overrun by a Blitzkrieg of Panzer and Stuka, Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe.
What did Dunkirk and the fall of Europe mean for the zoos and botanic gardens? In 1939, 75% of food in Britain was imported through shipping. This meant that food from distant Empire or later Commonwealth countries like India, Australia and Canada in merchant ships had to run the gauntlet of U-Boat submarine blockades, torpedo and aerial attack, despite convoy protection.
No wonder ‘food miles’ (as they are known today) were a concern of an early poster slogan, “Let your Shopping, Help our Shipping” (many wonderful posters viewable or for sale on the Imperial War Museum website and shop www.iwm.org.uk). Britain and its zoos lost their food supplies from European countries, especially in the Mediterranean, and the market gardens of the Channel Islands. Onions, tomatoes and other crops became hard to obtain. Strangely, mealworms, a staple insect food for many zoo animals still today, was mostly obtained prewar from Germany, as one British zoo director regretted.
Before long, botanic gardens and glasshouses, greenhouses, zoo lawns and empty enclosures would be transformed into tomato farms, veg patches, along with pig, rabbit and chicken enclosures by an enterprising and hungry staff.
Like those in Poland, many zoos across Holland, Belgium and France fell under German occupation, ironically a nation noted for their great interest in zoos. Many British zoo keepers and directors would have had visited these forward-thinking German zoos and known their staff or sent animals there on breeding loan. Tragically for an international minded profession, this choice and option did not exist by May and June 1940. Many surviving and prize animals were spirited away to Germany, a story recounted by Diane Ackerman in The Zoo Keeper’s Wife about Warsaw Zoo.
Further stories about what happened to other European Zoos, Aquariums and Botanic Gardens in wartime we are researching as part of the World War Zoo gardens project for a book due in 2011/12.
The long-lasting damage that food and fuel shortages inflicted across zoos and botanic gardens in Britain and Europe was eclipsed by the firestorms of aerial bombing by both sides and battlefields raging across Berlin, Dresden, Russia, Eastern Europe, Asia and parts of Japan. Little was left, for example, of Berlin Zoo after the fighting for example, under a hundred animals from the many thousands in what was before the war regarded as one of the world’s leading zoo collections.
Poignant photos in the Imperial War Museum collection show empty looking zoos in Hamburg Zoo (Germany) and Antwerp Zoo (Belgium) being used as DP (Displaced People) camps for Polish and Russian refugees, evacuees and German troops captured as prisoners of war locked into the strongly barred Lion House, all pictures difficult to look at without noticing the eerie echo of the bars and wire of the concentration camps.
Where the missing animals were from the lion house and other enclosures suggest its own sad story. Many of these refugee and POW camps soon had scratch vegetable gardens to feed the inmates and also keep them busy, a tale well told in Kenneth Helphand’s recent book Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime (available through Amazon and other suppliers).
The urge to garden and raise new life is something staff at Newquay Zoo share having nursed our fledgling ‘dig for victory’ veg patch on the Lion House Lawn through a poor summer and harsh winter over the last year. This week, some of the long nurtured vegetables from 2009 have been harvested to make room for more planting.
Leeks (probably Musselburgh, a wartime variety) were served up to our critically endangered Sulawesi Macaque monkeys within a few minutes and metres of being dug up – not bad counting food miles or for freshness, still with soil on the roots. The young macaques played with these, racing through the branches and along ropes, clutched like a favoured doll or must-have toy and status symbol, an inspiration to race and play vegetable tag. The adult macaque monkeys peeled the leafy tips apart but were much more excited about the Perpetual Spinach, again another plant grown in the 1940s by wartime zoo keepers and recommended in the 1940s gardening books.
Leeks with soil on the roots proved equally attractive (and sneezy!) to our rare (critically endangered) Yellow Breasted Capuchin Monkeys from Brazilian rainforests. Pat and Tux, two brothers, ripped and tore the leeks about roughly in a style that Jamie Oliver would approve, along with the enrichment bottles that our Junior Keeper made for them.
African Pygmy goats quickly ate every scrap of the Savoy Cabbage Ormskirk Late Green, a variety recommended in the 1940s gardening books. Our critically endangered Visayan Warty Pigs, the world’s rarest pig from the Philippines, were not so impressed by ‘seconds fresh’ cabbage straight from the nearby earth. Noted for next year!
Hopefully people visiting the zoo via our new macaque monkey web cam www.newquayzoo.org.uk saw this triumph of a Sulawesi Macaque baby boom (four youngsters born into the small group in one year) and patient nurturing of our wartime veg garden come together at our 3.15 p.m. ‘playing with your food’ enrichment talk.
Unusual peacock sized garden pests are becoming a problem, something we’ll blog about in the next week.
Find out more about our project and the year long journey our wartime ‘dig for victory’ garden has taken from seed to Sulawesi Macaque monkey snack by reading past entries from the blog here.
From wartime 1940s allotments to modern times, you can read more about the hi-tech Verti Crop system of growing vegetables showcased by Kevin Frediani and the gardens team at our sister zoo Paignton Zoo www.paigntonzoo.org.uk. Opened in the 1920s, Paignton Zoo survived throughout war in the 1940s and is now at the cutting edge of plant technology in the 21st century.
We value comments about our project and blog for the World War Zoo gardens project, you can find comment sections on the blog or contact us via this blog.
Tags: 1940, 1940s, 2010 International Year of Biodiversity, botanic gardens, dig for victory garden, Dunkirk, enrichment, evacuation, food waste, gardening, gardens, history teaching, Imperial War Museum, Jamie Oliver, macaque monkeys, Newquay Zoo, Paignton Zoo, Panzer, pygmy goats, reenactment, Royal British Legion, salad, sustainability, VertiCrop, wartime gardening, warty pigs, world war 2, world war two, zoo, zoos