Bristol Zoo opens the archive for VE Day

With VE Day approaching, it is a timely opportunity to look back on our history during WW2 and reflect on how Bristol Zoo has coped in challenging times – both then, and now.

VE (Victory in Europe) Day, on 8 May, is when many communities around the UK hoped to come together in person to celebrate 75 years since the guns fell silent at the end of the conflict in Europe. Sadly, we are fighting a different battle now, not against a visible enemy but against the continuing spread of COVID-19, which has led to public celebrations being cancelled this Bank Holiday weekend.

But VE Day will still go ahead in a smaller, quieter way, as we turn grand gatherings into private celebrations at home, and on line, honouring the sacrifices made both here and abroad. It is a time for remembrance, gratitude, and joy that brighter days always follow times of darkness.

Bristol Zoo faced many threats during the war, including food shortages and air raids; and more than 50 incendiary devices fell on our site (thankfully few animals were harmed). However, one high-explosive bomb caused serious injury to a gatekeeper.

One beacon of hope, though, was the amazing support we received from the people of Bristol in a true show of wartime spirit. Our 106th Annual Report, dated 8 April 1942, read:

‘This century old society, founded in 1836 for the study of Zoology and Botany, would have been confronted with the possibility of having to close down, but for the generous support of the public and our many friends. We are still not free of anxiety for the future in many respects.’ 

As we open our archive now and bring you stories from the Zoo’s wartime years, we want to thank all of our supporters past and present. Bristol Zoological Society is a charity and  has always relied on income from visitors and donations to help care for our animals, and today your support means we can also continue our vital conservation work in the UK and around the world, protecting endangered species such as the western lowland gorilla, Kordofan giraffe and African penguin.

Both Bristol Zoo Gardens and Wild Place Project have now been closed to our visitors for over a month. Just as the Zoo asked for help during the Second World War, we have now launched the Bristol Zoological Society Appeal so that we can continue to thrive when we reopen. We have been overwhelmed by the number of generous donations we’ve already received.

Visit our Appeal page for more information about the Bristol Zoological Society Appeal, and to make a donation to support us and the animals in our care.

The start of the War

As Bristol was a key target for German air raids, a huge level of planning went into protecting the animals themselves and local people, in case the Zoo was bombed and animals escaped. Many dangerous species were ‘adopted’ by other zoos, including the North of England Zoo (now Chester) which took two leopards, a tiger and a lioness ‘on deposit’ for the duration of the War. 

Parts of Bristol Zoo itself were also put to use in the war effort. The polar bear enclosure was converted into an air raid shelter, and the Auxiliary Fire Service was granted use of another yard ‘on the condition that they give an undertaking to remove the Anderson steel shelter when hostilities cease'.

Bristol Zoo asks for help

Aside from the threat of air raids, the biggest challenge was finding enough food for the animals, with fruit in particularly short supply. Today our keepers know that fruit is too sugary and bad for animals’ health, except as a special treat, but in the 1940's it was a staple of many animals’ diets.

Fresh fish was also difficult to find for the seals and penguins. Interestingly, the keepers tried using meat soaked in cod liver oil, but with limited success.

Visitors, too, were hungry. Some stole waterfowl eggs from the Zoo to eat, though fortunately they didn’t hurt the birds themselves.

One way Bristol Zoo tackled the food crisis was to convert the flowerbeds around the gardens into vegetable patches. The switch from fruit to veg, which as well as being practical, also had the unexpected benefit of improving many animals’ health, including most famously Alfred the gorilla (more on him below).

A report from 1940 also states the Zoo hoped to receive half a ton of carrots from Bristol Children’s Hospital, who were ‘growing their own’ in the hospital’s garden to combat food shortages.


A gorilla called Alfred

Alfred the gorilla is undoubtedly Bristol Zoo’s most famous former resident. Alfred first came to us in 1930, aged about three years old and wearing a jumper he’d apparently started wearing in Africa; he certainly kept it for another two years thanks to the cold British weather!

Alfred was a lively character and caused a public sensation from the moment he arrived. He was only the second gorilla in Europe, the other living in Berlin Zoo, named Bobby.In his early years Alfred was taken for walks around the Zoo on a leash (something you would never see at any responsible Zoo today). In winter he also became very good at making snowballs, and even had a go at ice-skating! By 1934, though, he’d grown immensely, and developed great strength, making it too dangerous to take him out of his enclosure.

At the time, it was widely thought that gorillas were too fragile to be kept in Zoos, and sadly many didn’t live long. Bristol Zoo, however, pioneered a new approach, giving Alfred year-round access to an open-air enclosure instead of shutting him inside in winter, and supplementing his diet of fruit, nuts, vegetables, milk, cheese, and brown bread with special vitamin preparations. Alfred thrived, and his size and popularity only kept growing.

While many animals were evacuated at the outbreak of the war, Alfred was considered too important. Instead the Zoo reinforced the bars of his enclosure to reduce the risk of him escaping during an air raid.

Alfred became a symbol of morale for many, and his fame spread internationally as soldiers from the US and Australia based in Bristol sent home postcards of him; in one year alone a staggering 20,000 were sold!

Having survived the war, Alfred passed away on 9 March 1948, aged 21, from tuberculosis; at the time, this made him the longest living gorilla in a Zoo. Today you can see him on display in Bristol Museum, and find his death mask in M Shed museum by the harbourside.

Animals like Alfred have done so much to lift people’s spirits during difficult times, so during the COVID-19 lock down we’re bringing you lots of animal stories, photos and videos to help brighten your day. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram for daily animal updates, or sign up to our e-newsletter.

Keeper Bert Jones wins a Medal for Gallantry

Bert Jones in the 1930's

Bert Jones (pictured right with fellow keepers. Centre, wearing glasses. Photo courtesy of Robert Bishop, with our thanks) started working at Bristol Zoo as a keeper in 1928, and looked after Alfred for several years.Like many, he fought during the War, serving in the Royal Tank Regiment. In 1944 Bert was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry in action in Italy, having saved other members of his crew from a burning tank when it was fired upon, sustaining injuries himself. Bert returned to Bristol Zoo after the War, and continued to work here until his retirement in 1972 after 44 years.

A final word …

Bristol Zoo has weathered many storms in our long history, including the Second World War, and we are determined to overcome our current challenges posed by the pandemic and thrive into the future.

As a charity, our mission is ‘Saving Wildlife Together’. We have been doing this for 185 years and plan to continue doing so for our future generations.

While the Zoo and Wild Place Project may be closed to visitors, we still need to feed and care for the thousands of animals in our collection. We also need to safeguard the future of our conservation projects, protecting endangered species in the wild.

If you would like to support us and our animals, please donate to the Bristol Zoological Society Appeal.

If you are not in a position to donate at the moment, please help by sharing this blog with others and spread the word about our work and appeal.

Thank you!

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