Animals in WWII … London Zoo

The biggest and best known concentration of animals in Britain in WWII was the London Zoo in Regents Park. Imagine the difficulties in finding somewhere to evacuate lions and elephants! For many the war meant moving to Whipsnade zoo in Bedfordshire. The Times reported that the evacuees included the giant pandas, the two mating elephants, two young yak calves, fallow red and Chinese water deer fawns, two baby brown bears, the little black lamb which was deposited by Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret and several goats.

The poisonous snakes were destroyed at the start of the war. The aquariums were drained to prevent 200,000 gallons of water deluging the local streets.

The zoo reopened in September 1939 after its first period of closure in 110 years. If visitors had to retreat to a bomb shelter, they were not allowed back into the grounds until riflemen had ensured that no dangerous animals had escaped from their cages; if they had, the escapees would be shot.

The remaining animals were quite lonely as visitors were ‘fewer and farther between’, in fact the sea lions would come onto their grass verge and followed visitors like a string of waddling sausages, with the old male at the head. They were missing their usual tidbits of fish as they had been placed on a diet of meat.

Lack of food was a more major problem than bombs for the animals. When the zebra house was destroyed by a direct hit the twenty year old Johnson escaped from the Gardens and ran for half a mile before he was caught. The same night a colony of rhesus monkeys escaped to run wild for a few days but sometime later the camels totally ignored the tiles on their walls clattering down.

One new inhabitant was a reindeer called Polly Ann given to British sailors by a Russian Warship and taken to England by submarine. She was fed Iceland moss, collected by the sack full from the Welsh mountains by an admirer in Wales. Evergreen oak, okapi and bamboos shoots were grown for the giant panda. Carnivores were given horse meat as fish was in short supply and fruit eaters survived on carrots. The dangerous-snake cages now housed rabbits, most useful for fur and meat. One poor monkey was spotted carefully parcelling up a potato inside a banana skin.

The Zoo was a real morale booster for both locals and visiting service personnel on their rare days of R&R, with 1,600,000 visitors in 1943, not very much less than the 2 million of 1938.

One woman reported visiting the zoo in 1944 and she had managed to get a bag of peanuts… the parrots shook the bars of their cages and recited every party piece they knew in a desperate effort to be rewarded with a rare peanut!



Norman Longmate How we lived then, a history of everyday life during the Second World War, London, Arrow Books, 1971, p 225-227.

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