Keeping the Beasts: Bristol Zoo Gardens in a Wider World

Dr. Andy Flack, Teaching Fellow in Modern History, University of Bristol


Fig. 1 A View of the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park, London, 1835; showing figures by the camel house to the left and to the right a pen filled with sheep, goats and a zebra. From the Collection of the Museum of London.
Zoological gardens emerged in Europe from the end of the eighteenth century, when a combination of expanding European empires, more efficient travel technologies, and a gathering curiosity in the exotic things of the ‘out there’ entwined to intensify the acquisition of living and non-living curiosities. Natural history museums as silent catalogues of the world’s wares, and the typical Victorian parlour, might have contained collections of fossils, shells, animal skins, or ferns. Out of this so-called ‘natural history craze’[1], arose the permanent zoological collections of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The first such collection is usually considered to be Tiergarten Schönbrunn, Vienna (1752), while the first in Britain was opened by the Zoological Society of London in Regent’s Park in 1826.

Bristol Zoo’s role in the story of world zoos is significant. Its opening to the public in 1836 makes it the oldest surviving zoo outside of a capital city, and the fifth oldest zoo in the world. Its position in one of Britain’s key, though admittedly declining, colonial ports was influential in its survival during a period when many smaller British zoos floundered.

Fig. 2  William Hunt, ‘Drawing of the Entrance to the Bristol & Clifton Zoological Gardens’, c. 1840

The processes involved in acquiring animals for Bristol Zoo were significantly destructive. The animals exhibited in the early Zoo, such as chimpanzee, agile gibbon, gold and silver pheasant, elephant, and St Bernards and Labrador dogs, were acquired from a range of parties involved in the global wild animal trade. This trading network included other zoos, circuses, travelling menageries, private individuals whose pets had ‘turned’, and professional animal dealers.

But all of these animals had, at root, been taken from the wild places of the world. The Imperial hunt, so renowned for the intentional slaughter of animal life, also sought, in many cases, to capture the living so that they could be donated or sold in Europe. One such animal dealer was Carl Hagenbeck, the accompanying image depicting the terror of wild things as he approached.

Fig. 3 ‘Hagenbeck is coming!’ (Drawing by Adolf Oberlander in the “Flying Scroll”, 1893)

Fig. 4 ‘Rajah and Mahout’ (1913) (BCWEZS TEMP/1652)
Once animals had been captured they were moved to Bristol. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this was principally done by ship, and the scale of maritime mortality was consistently extensive. Self-inflicted injury, starvation, thirst and edibility carried much animal cargo away long before its proposed arrival in Britain. Bristol Zoo’s elephant, Rajah, for instance, arrived after a protracted and destructive elephant quest after the death of the popular Zebi in 1910. Two elephants sourced from India died, one being discovered dead in its hold on arrival in London and the other drowning when the steamer transporting it hit a storm at Port Said, Egypt. Third time lucky, Rajah was successfully delivered in 1913, along with his mahout.

Fig. 5 ‘Russian Bear “Jack”, Clifton Zoo’, BCWEZS Roy Vaughan Collection
Once animals had successfully arrived in Bristol, they were usually displayed according to their assigned place in a comprehensive zoological series. The Zoo’s Main Terrace contained a number of displays, including the Terrace Menagerie. In this series of cages could be found a vast array of animals from hyena to wombat, and a ‘Serpent Box’ displaying snakes behind a glass screen. At the end of the Terrace stood a bear pit, a structure reminiscent of Bristol’s earlier animal pasts and representative of display techniques beyond the scientific. Here, visitors encouraged the bears to climb its pole, enticing it with bread, buns and biscuits.

Zoo guidebooks reveal much about how animals were imagined. Humans, at least in the West, tended (and continue) to have trouble considering themselves as prey. During the nineteenth century, in particular, animals which threatened human safety or property were often described as ‘bad’ or ‘cruel’.[2] Big cats and reptiles were chief among the antagonistic animals featured in Bristol Zoo’s guidebooks in the nineteenth century. The 1882 guidebook labelled an array of snakes as ‘monstrous’, before describing their predatory habits in all their gory glory. Big cats, meanwhile, were imagined according to their supposed savagery and the human pastime of the imperial hunt. The image below depicts a tiger on the prowl and was positioned amongst descriptions of the human hunting of tigers in South East Asia in the 1882 guidebook.







Conversely, animals which lived harmoniously with humans and who served them in various ways were frequently considered ‘good’ animals. These animals included beasts of burden such as elephants (though they were considered eminently capable of returning ‘evil for evil’), llamas, and the trusty canine.

Some of the animals displayed at the Zoo were intimately associated with particularly human concerns, some rooted in the military campaigns of the British Empire. Animals served as mascots, coming to symbolise the role of the British abroad, and the plight of men at war.


Fig. 8 Monkey Temple, Clifton Zoo (1928), BCWEZS The Roy Vaughan Collection

Fig. 7 Monkey Mascot (c. 1916), BCWEZS The Roy Vaughan Collection

Animals were also contextualised through the specific manner of their display, and from the very beginning, their small, barred cages were adorned with signage detailing the common and Latin names and country of origin of the animals enclosed. In the early twentieth century, however, some animals were linked to the wild places of the British Empire in new and innovative ways. The Monkey Temple, pictured above, is a particularly powerful case in point. Inspired by the Cold Lairs of the Bandarlog in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, the enclosure featured monkeys in what was considered to be their natural habitat, having colonised the remains of human settlement in Britain’s own Indian territories.


Similarly evocative of British imperialism was the popular children’s amusement of the elephant ride. Instigated in the late nineteenth century, when visitors were first permitted the chance to ride on the back of the elephant Zebi, the elephant ride quickly became a principal feature of childhood visits to the Zoo. The elephant Rosie, at least, was adorned with a howdah which conjured forth images of Imperial splendour and the hunting activities of the British Raj.

Elephants at the Zoo were thought to have significant emotional bonds with their keepers. Rosie, in particular, who resided at the Zoo between 1938 and 1961, was thought to have grown attached to her long-time keeper Tom Bartlett. The pair of them are featured in Figure 9.

Fig. 9 Rosie and Keeper giving rides’ (1955), BCWEZS TEMP/1598.
When Tom was away, Rosie pined for him, sometimes exhibiting aggression toward replacement keepers. She died eighteen months after Bartlett’s retirement and many were in no doubt that she had died from a broken heart.

Elephants were also among the ‘marquee’ animals of the Zoo. The day an elephant arrived was the day the zoo transformed into an establishment worthy of the name.[3] This necessitated the swift replacement of specimens whenever the need arose. Indeed, large mammals were, generally speaking, the most popular zoo exhibits, and rarely was the Zoo without big cats, elephants and polar bears. Alongside these dependably popular animals were exotic novelties, brought to the Zoo in part because they were able to attract vast crowds.

Fig. 10 ‘Agile Gibbon’, 2007,’

Among the first novelties in Bristol in the late 1830s and early 1840s were chimpanzee and Ungka-puti (agile gibbon). Although these animals were arriving at European ports in increasing numbers by this time, most did not survive for long in the cold and wet conditions of a typical British winter. Their rapid demise rendered them significant novelties.

Fig. 11 Obaysch at the London Zoo

In 1860 the Zoo tried to acquire a hippopotamus, possibly attempting to emulate the Zoological Society of London’s success with their own hippo, Obaysch, around 1850. For the people of Bristol the sight of a real, living ‘river horse’ would be a significant attraction. Alas, the logistics of displaying such an animal in Clifton prevented its acquisition.

Fig. 12 Alfred the Gorilla (1945), BCWEZS Roy Vaughan Collection

The Zoo achieved a significant coup in its exhibition of a gorilla in the 1930s and 1940s. Alfred was acquired in 1930 by a Greek merchant who bought him in the Belgian Congo. Very few gorillas had been displayed in Europe prior to this, and, like the apes of earlier years, most had not survived for long. A rarely-seen creature emerging from the darkest wilds of Africa, Alfred – along with Bushman in Chicago, and Gargantua the Great at Barnum and Bailey’s traveling circus – quickly became the most popular of zoo animals.

The importance attached to exhibiting rarely-seen creatures continued throughout the twentieth century. The Zoo’s white tigers (at one point the Zoo displayed one third of the entire global captive population) proved to be especially popular, though they were removed from the collection in the mid-1980s.

Fig. 13 Bristol Zoo Book and Official Guide (Bristol: BCWEZS, 1964)
The removal of the white tigers was, in significant ways, a result of the Zoo’s increasing desire to work with endangered species. The protection of disappearing wildlife gradually emerged as a serious concern (especially in the UK and the US) during the nineteenth century, when it was noticed that, in places like the Southern African Cape and the American West, animal life was disappearing from the wild places where they had previously been in brilliant abundance.

The quagga, pictured below, is one such example.  It had been hunted to extinction by 1883.

Fig. 14 Frederick York, ‘Quagga’ [n.d.]

A rising concern for the preservation of the valuable species of the Empire from the end of the nineteenth century is in evidence at Bristol Zoo. For some time, the Zoo was concerned not with protecting all species and environments, but simply with protecting those it thought of as having especial value. These, fairly typically for the time, emphatically did not include the predators of a violent natural world.

A statue stood at the Zoo’s entrance at the close of the nineteenth century with an inscription which read ‘saving a bird from the ravages of a fox’. This suggested that the bird was worth saving, at the presumable expense of the hungry carnivore.

Similarly, early twentieth century Zoo publications endorsed the protection of some species because they were ‘native’ to Britain, or of the Empire. This conservation ideology was rooted in a belief in the human right to ownership of the rest of the natural world. Only after 1980 did the expansive conservation mission of today’s Zoo emerge and establish strong roots.

Fig. 15 ‘Statue at Front Entrance (c. 1910), BCWEZS TEMP/2593).

Fig. 16 Dr Christoph Schwitzer of the Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation with a black-and-white ruffed lemur (Varecia variegata).

In today’s Zoo, animals are bred for the purposes of conservation and the sustainability of human interaction with the rest of the natural world. Figure 16 shows Dr Christoph Schwitzer, Head of Research at Bristol Zoo, working with  a black-and-white ruffed lemur in Madagascar, one of the most unique and fragile ecosystems in the world. This conservation mission continues to connect Bristol Zoo, in an increasingly influential way, with a wild world far beyond its walls.


[1] Elisabeth Hanson, Animal Attractions: Nature on Display in American Zoos (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 44.

[2] Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Animals in the Victorian Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 30.

[3]John M. Mackenzie, The Empire of Nature: Hunting, Conservation and British Imperialism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), p. 37.

flack-bio pic biggerDr. Andrew J.P. Flack, Exhibit Curator; also “Keeping the Beasts: Bristol Zoo Gardens in a Wider World”

Dr Andy Flack is a Teaching Fellow in Modern History at the University of Bristol. His interests lie in the fields of imperial, environmental and animal histories and geographies. He has recently published work on celebrity animals in Victorian England, namely Obaysch the celebrity hippopotamus, and on the acquisition and display of animals at Bristol Zoo since 1836. His doctoral work examined the history of human-animal relationships at Bristol Zoo (the oldest provincial zoo in the world), focusing on the wild animal trade, methods of display, scientific and affectionate looking, agency, and death.

If you’d like to learn more:

Recent Publications:
 ‘The Illustrious Stranger: Hippomania and the Nature of the Exotic’, Anthrozoos, (2013)

‘Science, Stars and Sustenance: Animal Acquisition and Display at the Bristol Zoo, 1836-c. 1970’, in William Beinart,  Karen Middleton and Simon Pooley (eds.), Wild Things: Nature and the Social Imagination (2013)

Check out Bristol Zoo’s new history App:

Follow Dr. Flack on Twitter: @Flackyslegion


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