Lifestyle

Thursday 24 July 2014

The great zoo's who...

From rented elephants to Pat Kenny's dad, John Costello looks at the colourful history of Dublin Zoo on its 180th birthday

Guinness lovers may have Arthur to thank, but as Dublin Zoo prepares to celebrate its 180th anniversary this weekend its legions of fans should give a big thanks to Albert.

When the zoo first opened its doors in 1831 it boasted just 46 mammals and 72 birds, but as the zoo began to establish itself disaster was soon to strike.

Just 15 years later Ireland was plunged into famine and the future of the zoo, like the country as a whole, was bleak. Its saviour came in 1844 after a swap deal involving a two-toed sloth and a tiger cat for a giraffe with London Zoo.

Albert the Giraffe, born in 1841, came to the rescue and with virtually no other animals left he helped to keep the zoo's doors open to a trickle of people.

"Without Albert I really think the other animals would have been allowed to die off, as many of them already had," says zoo historian Catherine de Courcy. "So I think it was the giraffe that kept the zoo in existence. And for that, Albert deserves our thanks."

Over its 180-year history the zoo has not only survived the famine, but two World Wars, the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and economic hardship.

Now Dublin Zoo is thriving and has just knocked the Guinness Storehouse off top spot as the nation's most popular place to visit.

With over 960,000 visitors last year and the unveiling of the Gorilla Rainforest planned for September, the hope is Albert's legacy can continue to keep Arthur's off the top.

So in recognition of the zoo's anniversary we turned the clock back and delved into the past with zoo historian Catherine de Courcy to pick her top 10 weird, wonderful and zany zoo facts.

1 The Case Of The Mysterious Snake Bite

St Patrick may have banished snakes from Ireland, but it did not stop John Supple getting a bite from one in 1867. Born in Dublin around 1812, Supple became a zookeeper shortly after the zoo opened in 1831.

However, his tenure came to a sudden end after he was bitten by a python and died a day later in hospital. The experts in the zoo were left confused and wondered how a man could die from the bite of a non-venomous python. The post- mortem revealed the cause of death was not actually from the bite but bizarrely, most likely from shock.

2 The Body Snatchers!

It is no coincidence that the founders of Dublin Zoo -- the fourth oldest zoo in Europe, after Vienna, Paris and London -- were members of the medical profession.

"Their interest was in studying the animals while they were alive and more particularly getting hold of them when they were dead," says De Courcy.

"In the 1830s the laws concerning cadavers for medical use changed. Up until the early 1830s you had to rob graves unless you were part of one of the big medical institutions, so getting your hands on the corpse of a primate without having to rob a grave was quite something," she laughs.

"So to me that was definitely one of the driving forces!"

3 The Hollywood Star

One of Dublin Zoo's most famous sons had a career that became a roaring success. The ferocious lion that struts his stuff at the beginning and end of early Metro Goldwyn Meyer movies was apparently born in Dublin Zoo in 1919. Slats was used on all MGM films from 1924 to 1928.

However, no birth certificate has ever been found for Slats, though one of two cubs born in the zoo that year was sold abroad. So it may be strange, but quite possibly true.

4 A Presidential Presence

Long before Clinton or Obama wooed the Irish on their whirlwind visits, president Ulysses Grant (albeit when he had left office) was among the celebrities who came to see Dublin's world-famous lions in the 19th century.

The zoo began breeding the cats in the 1850s, with animals brought from Africa, and became world-famous when between 1857-1876 a total of 92 cubs were born in the zoo.

5 A Bloody 1916

When the Phoenix Park went into lockdown on Easter Monday in 1916 as the Rising erupted on the capital's streets, luckily Dublin Zoo was well stocked with food.

However, even though they used human food where they could, by the following Monday the meat supplies had run dry.

"They were forced to kill a few goats, an old donkey and a couple of dingoes," says De Courcy. "Thankfully none of the larger more precious animals had to be slaughtered.

"The meat kept them going for a couple more days until the zoo's superintendent was able to use his connections to arrange a shipment of food." So, mercifully it was only a little animal blood that was spilled in 1916 in Dublin Zoo.

6 The Elephant Man

One of the best-loved zookeepers in Dublin's history was Jimmy Kenny, father of RTÉ broadcaster Pat. Generations of visitors were on first-name terms with him through his work as elephant-keeper.

"If you were a child in the 1950s or 1960s, you will remember Jimmy Kenny, because he was the man who took you for rides on the elephants," says De Courcy.

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7 Rent-A-Zoo

During the 1830s Dublin Zoo had lions, tigers and pumas. However, it rented its elephant and rhinoceros from travelling menageries.

"There was one whose travelling menagerie was run by a guy whose name was Atkins. He used to travel between Britain and Ireland. His animals were usually on show at the likes of the Donnybrook Fair," says De Courcy.

"We rented our elephants from him until London lent us an elephant in 1836. No one knows how far down the country these menageries actually went. It would be interesting to research if elephants actually roamed along the streets of Wicklow and Carlow!"

8 A Zoo Fit For A Queen

In 1837 a young Queen Victoria became Dublin Zoo's patron. To show its appreciation a year later the zoo held an open day to celebrate the queen's coronation.

Over 20,000 people visited the zoo to mark the occasion, which to this day is still the highest number of visitors in one day. The queen visited Dublin Zoo to return the favour and say thank you in 1900.

9 A Lover's Paradise?

Dublin Zoo has become renowned for the breeding of creatures in captivity. From 1857 to 1965, some 593 lion cubs were born in Dublin Zoo, more than in any other in the world. It holds the European studbooks for species including the Moluccan cockatoo and the golden lion tamarin.

The latest new arrivals include a baby gorilla, giraffe calves, rhino calf, not to mention all the newborns in the Family Farm.

10 The Tiger That Saved The Zoo

He may be forever tarnished by our fall from economic grace, but Bertie Ahern is credited with saving Dublin Zoo from certain extinction with the help of the Celtic Tiger.

In 1993 as Finance Minister he voted for a £15m (€19m) capital grant for the zoo, which was facing closure at the time. This was only the second capital grant the zoo received, the first being back in 1868. Then in 2000 as Taoiseach he gave a further capital grant of €20m and in 2006 gave another €20m. This allowed Dublin Zoo undergo a huge transformation with the development of the Kaziranga Forest Trail, the African Savanna, Family Farm and the soon-to-be opened Gorilla Rainforest.

"With this money we were able to develop and modernise the zoo and visitor figures went from under 400,000 in 1993 to being now nearly one million," says De Courcy. "This is where the Celtic Tiger money really helped and made a real difference."

Dublin Zoo historian Catherine de Courcy is hosting a series of historical tours from June 13-15 at 10.30am. For further details call (01) 474 8997 or email events@dublinzoo.ie. Tours cost €15 per person and include tea and coffee

Irish Independent

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