The Zoo Book

I was away on holiday last week, and just so happened to be just 45 minutes away from Inverness. So naturally that meant a trip to one of my favourite places – Leakey’s Second Hand Bookshop (second largest in Scotland).

They have a great children’s section and as always some Blytons but I had most of them! I couldn’t resist The Zoo Book which was priced at £10. It’s a later reprint but it still has lots of black and white pictures plus six full colour plates (a big selling point in those days I bet!) Inside it reads profusely illustrated with six plates in full colour and forty-nine photo-reproductions in black and white. 

On the left is the first edition, George Newness 1924 – which didn’t have any colour pages. Then there’s two rather similar reprints. The middle one is from 1926, and I have the newer reprint (early 1930s) on the right.

So even though mine is the newest it is still at least eighty years old and one of the oldest books in my collection.


The animals aren’t quite in two by twos (hurrah) but there is a brief history of Londzon Zoo.

Far back in the nineteenth century, about a hundred years ago… people did not take nearly such interest in animals… often they were cruel to them because they did not understand them.

The zoo was already a hundred years old when this book was written, and it’s over a hundred and eighty now, so it’s interesting to see Blyton talking about old-fashioned attitudes etc, when the ‘current’ ones probably seem very out to date to us now.

A good example is this quote:

They [the ‘gardens’] are very different now from what they were when they were first opened. New ideas are always being thought of, and the animals are better cared for, better fed and better housed than they used to be.

and also, in particular this one:

Perhaps you sometimes think, when you see one or two animals pacing up and down their cages ‘how cruel to keep so many beasts caged up so that people may come and look at them!’ But you must remember that they are very well treated, are free from all danger of enemies, and have no fear of going hungry. Probably, most of them would say ‘We’d rather stay at the Zoo, thank you,’ if they were given the choice now, of staying to be looked after, or running wild again!

It shows a rather breath-taking amount of naivety and optimism! Certainly looking back at zoos in this time period (like Chester Zoo which was started in the garden of a large manor-house by a very conscientious and well-meaning family) modern eyes would be fairly horrified by the housing, feeding and care of the animals.

It’s not all positive remarks, though, and in fact a few are rather bizarrely negative and judgemental, written from Blyton’s perspective rather than a neutral one:

Some animals are disgusting to to watch when they are being fed, and some are not at all interesting to watch… The eagles are not very nice to watch, for they are so savage and fierce over their food… I think once or twice is enough to see the lions feed. The house is so crowded and hot, and the roaring is not a pleasant sound.

She  does say she prefers seeing the sea-lions and seals fed, and the description of that is instantly recognisable as something that really hasn’t changed in the intervening years. I’ve seen seals fed in that exact way very recently.

Other things are vastly different, for good reasons:

You can, of course, feed many of the animals yourself. Bananas, oranges, apples, bread, nuts, you will find most animals willing to take some of these… Some people feed the animals the wrong food and that makes them ill. And sometimes the animals get too much given them, and over-eat especially on bank holidays.

Could you imagine being allowed to feed zoo animals whatever you fancied these days? (OK my family may have fed otters cooked chicken on a few occasions… so I can’t claim to be entirely innocent here) It’s fairly shocking really, but I suppose it was less likely to be sausage rolls, crisps, donuts and pizzas back then. I can’t imagine sweets would have been very good for any animal, though.

And a last anecdote is presented as an amusing little tale but could have been disastrous – when a schoolboy fed an ostrich three whole oranges and they could be seen down his neck like giant beads on a string. Just as well he didn’t choke to death!


This chapter has some rather depressing facts – especially for a book for children.

  • Not one half of the animals caught live to be placed in a new home.
  • Rhinoceroses and elephants will fight for their young and usually the baby animals can be taken only after the old ones are killed.
  • After (reasonably humanely trapping baboons in a cage) : up come the hunters, and with forked sticks catch each baboon by the neck and pin him to the ground. Then the top of the cage is taken off, and the baboons are bound and muzzled. For a day or two they are terrified, but they soon recover, and get used to captivity. 
  • Holes are dug to catch baby hippos
  • Fires are set to flush out snakes into nets
  • Herds of goats taken along to feed the baby animals – and are fed to the meat eaters if they die.

There is also that same strain of ‘gosh, sounds awful but don’t worry they’re OK in the end’ which is patently not true if the first statement is true (and it probably is).

That fact is elaborated on later as well:

Many beasts die on the way. The heat kills a great many. Unsuitable food causes the death of others, and some die of fright and homesickness. But as the trader loses money on every animal that dies, every possible care is taken of them, and they are looked after and tended as if they were delicate babies!

What is interesting is how the animals are transported. I had pictures in my head of a long train like Indiana Jones encounters as a boy at the start of The Last Crusade.

But it’s more like:

Savage or small animals are carried in cages on the back of camels. Hippos are carried in cages slung on poles between two camels.

Also interesting is that a ‘ship’s butcher’ is in charge of the animals. To me that sounds a bit dodgy to say the least! ‘Whoops, this one died, it’s ostrich burgers for dinner, lads…”

Once on board the animals aren’t much safer though, despite best efforts:

  • Two cheetahs died from licking too much salt water from their fur.
  • The ship’s butcher lured an escaped bear back to his cage with a tin of treacle (a la Philip in The Circus of Adventure).
  • Giraffes can be valuable enough for the ship to dock and give them weeks on land to recover before resuming the journey should they become sick.


Some examples of ‘great innovations’ for the care and management of animals are given here – some are very clever but it’s a shame that many came too late to save animals from suffering or dying, and you get the impression that the keepers still didn’t understand their animals after it all.

  • Artificial sun (big lamps) for tropical birds to extend daylight hours and give them enough time to feed in the day, after a great many had died
  • A tin ruff for parrots to stop them pulling out their feathers (an unrecognised problem with stressed and unhappy parrots it would seem, but they are labelled as silly/daft in the book)
  • A bath for storks stained black by smoke and smog – not necessarily for the benefit of the birds but to appease the visitors who were disappointed in their grimy appearance.
  • Poles and irons – or a hose pipe – to separate fighting animals – though too late to save a female tiger being killed by her mate (the book really doesn’t shy away from death and disease!)
  • Animals with hoofs don’t get enough exercise in their small paddocks and need their hoofs filed… Well, that’s a solution I suppose. I wonder if it ever occurred to them to just give them bigger paddocks? (As an aside both hoofs and hooves are correct, but hoofs was more popular in the past while hooves is more prevalent today. Just another change in the last eighty years!)

I actually had to read this story out to my fiancé as it’s such a bizarre thing for a children’s book. I can see why Blyton didn’t want to gloss over the more negative happenings in a zoo but it’s told so blithely, as an amusing anecdote rather than a tragedy:

There was a polar bear who had a wife who sometimes irritated him dreadfully. She snarled at him and annoyed him, for she was a bad-tempered creature. He used to bear it as long as he could, and then he would suddenly turn on her and push her into the water. There he sat on her head until he thought she had been punished enough, when he would let her free again; but one day he sat too long on her head, and when he climbed out of the pond he found she did not follow him. She was drowned

He accidentally killed his mate! Isn’t that just awful? She is portrayed as ‘his wife’ in the story but I wonder if they were forced together as mates by zoo staff in hopes of bear cubs, or because they didn’t have space for two enclosures. Introductions of animals are handled so carefully these days it’s quite unthinkable for this sort of thing to happen.

Something I found very interesting is the back and forth changes in attitudes to the enclosures for monkeys and apes.

According to Blyton monkeys and apes were protected by glass to protect them from flu etc… but now it has been decided that it is really better for the animals to have fresh air and to be allowed to make friends with people.

So a big change there, and then now we are back to keeping the monkeys and people firmly apart (with glass, fencing, or large gaps between walls) for both parties’ safety. They certainly get the fresh air still, just not up close to people.

And lastly another ‘funny’ anecdote about the funniest sight in the world. Monkeys chasing each other around? Penguins falling clumsily into the water? No. It was a tapir with the mumps.

I’m really glad Blyton’s attitudes towards animals improved between this book and her ‘main canons’. It’s a very different world to the one she portrays in, for example, the Galliano’s Circus books. Could you imagine her casually having various circus animals die as ‘that’s what happened’?

It’s a very interesting piece of history, and I fully support zoos and wildlife parks today, but it does make for very uncomfortable reading. I just wish Blyton showed a little more humanity and distress or upset at so much suffering.

There are still another thirteen chapters to go, mind you, so she may redeem herself. I will leave those for another day (or several days).

Next post: The Zoo Book part 2

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1 Response to The Zoo Book

  1. Francis says:

    A very interesting insight into attitudes towards animals at this time – you can see just how revolutionary Gerald Durrell was and why he was shunned by the Zoo establishment.
    Thank you Fiona.


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