Being the oldest scientific zoo in the world, established in 1826, it’s no surprise that London Zoo in Regent’s Park has obtained a tale or two in its time. From escaping animals to national sweethearts, you’ll have heard of some of these critters, and may even have seen a couple of them hanging out elsewhere in London in their afterlife.
Winnie the Bear
One hundred years ago this summer, a black bear named Winnipeg was given to the zoo by a Canadian regiment called up to fight at the trenches in France. Although Winnipeg herself may not be one of the zoos better known names, her literary alter ego, Winnie the Pooh, is one of the most famous bears in the world. Yep, that’s right, we’re blowing your childhood illusions to shreds — Winnie was a girl (no word yet though on the stoically androgynous Piglet and Eeyore). Author AA Milne brought his son, Christopher Robin Milne, to see Winnipeg on a regular basis, and she became the boy’s favourite animal at the zoo (at the time, ‘elf and safety wasn’t what it is today and many children were allowed to stroke Winnipeg during their visits).
Guy the Gorilla
Guy the gorilla arrived at the zoo on Guy Fawkes day in 1947, hence the name, and spent his first night in London clinging on to a tin hot water bottle. He became the subject of a worldwide lonely hearts ad in the 1960s, finally receiving a mate in the form of Lomie, a female gorilla from Chessington Zoo, but they never reproduced. Despite his huge size, he was known for his gentle nature, often seen scooping up small birds that entered his enclosure and letting them go unharmed. The statue of Guy, which until recently resided in Barclay Court in the North East corner of the zoo, has now taken pride of place just inside the main entrance. Guy is now on display at the Natural History Museum, having undergone the taxidermy treatment post-mortem.
Chi Chi the Panda
Hang around near the stuffed panda in the Natural History Museum and it won’t be long until you hear a parent or grandparent nostalgically telling their child, “I saw this panda, alive, at London Zoo when I was your age”. Chi Chi the panda originally arrived at London Zoo on a three week loan in 1958, having become possibly the world’s first ever non-human political refugee — she was refused entry to the USA as the country had cut trading links with Communist China. She spent the last 14 years of her life as one of the zoo’s most popular animals, and was the inspiration behind the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) panda logo.
Jumbo the Elephant
Not many animals can lay claim to shaping the English language, but before Jumbo the elephant, there was no “jumbo”, meaning large, in the English language. The name is thought to originate from the Bantu “Njamba” meaning elephant, and he really was a big lad. He arrived in 1865 and was a favourite of the public, giving rides to children, before he inadvertently trampled and killed a keeper in 1878. Despite the outcry from the public, and even Queen Victoria, he was sold to American showman Phineas Barnum, and died three years later, hit by a freight train in Canada.
Not heard of a quagga? You’ve definitely not seen one. The only known photograph of a quagga (a subspecies of zebra) was taken at London Zoo in 1864. The species became extinct in 1883. See that photo here.
Goldie the eagle escaped in 1965 and flew around Regent’s Park for nearly a fortnight, making the national news and causing traffic jams before returning to the zoo. Goldie was actually nameless until this incident. When asked by a reporter what the escaped bird was called, a keeper came up with Goldie on the spot and it stuck.
As recently as 2009, a red panda escaped from the zoo and spent a night in a tree in Regent’s Park before being tranquillised. There are no longer red pandas at London Zoo.
There are many more residents of London Zoo, past and present, who we could have mentioned here; Pipaluk and Brumas the polar bears, Obaysch the first hippo in Europe since Roman times and more. Do you have a London Zoo memory?