Panda Tourism and Pearl Harbor – a wartime perspective from World War Zoo Gardens


LR Brightwell’s wartime panda poster for London Zoo 1942

What colour are Giant pandas? Black, white … and in wartime, grey, blue or possibly green?

Pandas were amongst some of the larger and famous London Zoo animals which were evacuated to or kept safe at rural Whipsnade as war loomed in 1939, with bamboo shipped regularly by the train load from the West Country at several points in the 1940s (and 1960s) to feed them (according to many local stories from zoo visitors, railway buffs and former boy scouts in Cornwall).

After the 1940/1 Blitz,  the surviving panda(s) returned to the comparative safety and quiet of London Zoo in 1942 alongside the Off The Rations exhibition as witnessed in the morale boosting wartime publicity poster by L.R. Brightwell. It is reproduced in his 1952 The Zoo Story London Zoo history book.

It’s a beautifully detailed cartoon, reminiscent of the First World War troops off to the trenches where Brightwell and other London Zoo staff served,   but with  the modern 1940s touches of  bamboo food ration book, identity card, keeper’s ARP steel helmet and gas mask box. Some animals may have had gas masks, but generally animals had no ration books, hence the victory gardens dug in many British  zoos to feed animals, which our award-winning World War Zoo Gardens project recreates at Newquay Zoo.

Britain’s wartime Pandas helped to draw the crowds back to London Zoo and so glimpse the “Off The Rations” exhibition and ‘dig for victory’ model allotment gardens.

Pandas are on the move and in the news again, from China to Edinburgh Zoo – and best of luck to all involved Whatever the arguments for and against ‘Panda tourism’ that will be rehearsed as a ‘conservation con-troversy’ in the media,  hopefully these iconic animals will draw many people through the gates to visit RZSS Edinburgh Zoo and find out about all the other endangered animals, both native (at the RZSS Highland Wildlife Park) and exotic species at the zoo and its many conservation projects, including overseas projects such as the Falkland Islands.

Red panda conservation poster, Newquay Zoo, 2011 (designed by Cornwall College students)

Bill Conway, a major American zoo figure, argued that good zoos are ‘a place to turn recreation dollars into conservation dollars’. Here at Newquay Zoo we don’t have Giant pandas, but we do have their rare cousin the Red or Lesser panda, with its own conservation problems of habitat loss and hunting for its vivid red fur. In the same tradition as Brightwell’s cartoon panda poster, a contemporary student banner from our partner college CornwallCollege sums up one problem that zoos can highlight for action to its visitors: “Conservation not deforestation”.

Panda ‘Peace Ambassadors’  Tian Tian and Yang Guang, the Giant Pandas from China arrived at  Edinburgh Zoo today on 4th December 2011. They will be on show to the public from 16th December 2011. For details of how to get Panda Viewing tickets, visit .

It’s been almost twenty years since Pandas have been seen in British zoos. I’m told I saw them as a 1970s child but have no memory of this.  I was lucky enough to see several pairs of panda ambassadors  in American Zoos, including a pair at San Diego Zoo in California c. 2002. These were part of a long-running relationship between American zoos and China stretching back to the 1930s.

The Roosevelt family played an important role in making  Pandas – dead or alive –  more well known in the West.

Two pandas were caught in transit when the events of the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor took place, on 7th  December 1941,  a “date which will live in infamy”, according to President Roosevelt.

Another strangely comic wartime story about pandas cropped up recently on the email network of the Bartlett Society Richard Reynolds recalls:

“Before there was any national TV in USA, there was a national Sunday radio broadcast from the Bronx Zoo. I recall hearing several episodes on our radio here in Atlanta in the fall of 1942.

“One of them dealt with the struggles to get the two giant pandas to the zoo just as war was breaking out in the Pacific. The animals had to be  flown over Japanese occupied China to the Philippines. They were on the high seas  en route to California from the Philippines when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor …”

“While at sea (after War broke out) the ship had to be painted in camouflage. The pandas were on deck for exercise and one of them got into the paint.  I can recall that as vividly as though it were it were yesterday though 68 years have elapsed” (with thanks to  Richard Reynolds, Atlanta, GA, 2009 for his memories).”

So pandas are indeed black, white and  grey (or  blue and green) whatever disruptive coloration was in emergency use on US naval ships in 1941.

Camouflage is one useful contribution of zoologists in wartime, and HMS Belfast still bears the ‘Western Approaches’ colour scheme invented by Sir Peter Scott, founder of the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust but then a well known wildlife artist and young naval commander. Peter Scott helped set up the international World Wildlife Fund in the 1960s (Patron: another young wartime Naval commander, the Duke of Edinburgh). WWF has of course  as its logo the  iconic Giant panda.

Gas masks for Japanese zoo elephants on the cover of Mayumi Itoh Japanese zoo wartime book

The sad anniversary of Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war by the Japanese on Allied countries 70 years ago will be marked  with many events this Wednesday. Within a month, many British, American and Allied outposts were captured by a triumphant Japanese Army and Navy. As we pointed out in our January 2011 blogpost, 1941 was seen by some as the “grimmest year of the war” forBritain and the Allies.

The rubber plantations, zoos and botanic gardens of Singapore and other colonies of the British Empire were quickly overrun. Rubber became a scarce and salvageable commodity. Zoo keeper’s wellington boots and rubber hoses became difficult to replace. In Britain the ladies of the WVS and WI dragged village ponds for scrap rubber tyres. In America, zoo animals patriotically gave up their rubber tyre swings for the war effort in publicity salvage drives.

Eleanor Roosevelt the President’s wife ordered a Dig for Victory garden to be dug in the White House lawns as an example to her nation to save , make do and mend and give their all for the war effort. (A modern organic version of the victory garden has been recreated by President  Obama’s family).

American zoos, especially on the coast, would have gone rapidly onto a war footing as British zoos had done in 1939; some closed, never to reopen.  One sad consequence of the declaration of war and very real fear of an invasion of Americaby the Japanese was the internment of ‘enemy aliens’ including Japanese-American families in harsh and remote places. Several generations of Issei, Nissei, Sansei and Yonsei responded by transforming their prisons and barrack blocks with beautiful stone gardens, a story told in Kenneth Helphand’s book Defiant Gardens.

Some of the ‘ghost marks’ of these ephemeral gardens at Manzanar CA are now national memorials, whilst many Japanese gardens erected after the war became peace gardens of reconciliation after the horrors of war ended at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I sometimes take Kenneth Helphand’s book down to our quiet Oriental gardens here at Newquay Zoo to read on quiet or difficult days.  Defiant Gardens is at times a difficult but ultimately inspiring book to read about this little known chapter of the war– a real argument for the peaceful urge to garden and plant, create rather than destroy. It would make a good present for the Christmas stocking for the quiet indoor months for your gardening friends. Defiant  Gardens  flourished in the most unlikely places including ghettoes and POW camps.

Percy Murray Adams ZSL Whipsnade Keeper (from Animal and Zoo Magazine)

Percy Murray Adams ZSL Whipsnade Keeper (from pre-war Animal and Zoo Magazine)

Three  of London Zoo and Whipsnade’s keepers, Henry Peris Davies (d. 21.12.1941, listed Singapore memorial)  and Albert Henry Wells (d. 25.01.1945, Burma)   perished through the long and bloody years of fighting in the Far East or in Japanese POW camps Percy Murray Adams (died in Japanese POW camp, 28.07.1943)  – Many of these keepers would have known or worked with the Giant pandas at London Zoo and Whipsnade. Read our November 2010 and 2011 blog post about ZSL London Zoo’s staff war memorial for more details.  I used to meet many old sweats of the the Burma Star Association and POWs on their visits to Newquay Zoo on their West Country reunions, a peaceful place  they said, despite the unnnerving  and evocative jungle scent in our Tropical House.

A Bamboo memorial garden to Far East POWs has been created through with local schools at Ness Botanic Gardens near Liverpool

No doubt many US, Indian and Australian zoo staff also died, were wounded or served in the Far East, as did members of my own family who held the Burma Star. Part of our World War Zoo Gardens research involves tracking down the effects of wartime on zoos, their staff and animals so any details of memorials or casualties are very helpful.

Mayumi Itoh’s recently published book Japanese Wartime Zoo Policy puts the other side of the story, describing the difficulties experienced by Japanese zoo animals and staff in wartime. Many Japanese zoo vets were called up to serve in the veterinary corps, keeping healthy that vital machine of war, the mule.

Not far from where Percy Murray Adams is buried, Sasanuma Tadashi, Ueno Zoo Tokyo keeper was killed. Despite the language differences, I’m sure these two keepers, like the two soldiers in Wilfred Owen’s First World War poem Strange Meeting,  would have had much common ground.

Mayumi Itoh comes out strongly to the conclusion that zoos need peace to flourish, whether in wartime, during the 1960s Panda and chess games of Cold War diplomacy or in today’s recessionary and uncertain world where zoos and wildlife are engulfed or sidelined by conflict in places likeLibya, Africa and the Middle East.

The sheltered woods and quarries of Paignton Zoo (our sister zoo in Devon), our nature reserve at Slapton Ley and much of the area of Cornwall around Newquay Zoo (where the World War Zoo Gardens is based) were once temporary home and training ground to thousands of young GIs from all over America who shipped out to D-Day from our now peaceful West Country beaches.

Some of them returned home to America, with many a Cornish or Devon ‘GI bride’ on their arm. Others never returned as they perished on the beaches of Slapton in Devon (remembered by Ken Small’s Sherman tank memorial), Normandy or the Pacific.  Our own World War Zoo Gardens at Newquay Zoo is a peaceful and productive memorial garden to the men, women, children and animals of all nationalities who have been affected by war around the world.

So maybe we should celebrate the peace, ‘sweetness’ and ‘sunshine’ that Tian Tian and Yang Guang (in translation) the Giant Pandas will hopefully bring (despite the crowds) to Edinburgh Zoo and the world. If you can’t make it toEdinburgh, you could visit your local zoo or spend a few quiet hours in the garden.

We’ll be busy getting ready for our Christmas weekend on 10 and 11th December 2011, and carol service on the 11th – see – and closed only on Christmas Day. We’ll be busy fundraising for the conservation of rare South-east Asian birds from those Far-East jungles in our Gems of The Jungle aviary project throughout next year.

So finally, a peaceful Happy Christmas and (Chinese) New Year (or Happy Panda Hogmanay) to all our blog readers over the next few weeks!

Stuck for presents or stressed by Christmas, you can read our  last December 2010 blog post (much pingbacked)  where we reflected on ‘make do and mend’ wartime Christmas presents and a few modern ideas for presents. Panda adoptions for Christmas presents maybe?


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2 Responses to “Panda Tourism and Pearl Harbor – a wartime perspective from World War Zoo Gardens”

  1. 1941 grimmest year of the war 75 years on | Worldwarzoogardener1939's Blog Says:

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