The Zoo Book, part 4

I’m looking at chapters ten to twelve this week, which leaves just four more after that.


Blyton has some advice here: If you happen to be a girl and go to the Zoo wearing a hat with a wreath of flowers round it, don’t stand too near the giraffe’s cage. It’s probably unnecessary advice these days (though maybe giraffes are attracted to plastic flowers on headbands?). I do remember at Edinburgh Zoo the giraffes could reach you over a high wall around the back of their enclosure. Sadly there are no giraffes at Edinburgh now.

She also mentions how dangerous giraffes can be:

Look in the giraffe’s stall at the Zoo, and you will see a small piece of plate glass fixed over a hole knocked in the wooden wainscot. That hole was made by a giraffe. He suddenly lowered his head one day, swung his neck round, and gave a sidelong, hammering blow at his keeper – but missed him by an inch! Instead, his horned head struck the wood and gave the giraffe a nasty surprise.

I can imagine, as I’ve seen giraffes using their heads/necks as clubs to fight other giraffes on documentaries and it’s quite astonishing the noise it makes!

Then we go on to the ‘cousins’ to use Blyton’s usual loose terminologies!

  • The camel. I think there has often been a misconception that a camel’s hump stores water, but Blyton makes it clear that it supplies fats for a period when they can’t get much to eat. She also explains that they have water cells that can hold 1.5l of water for dry times (probably why the above confusion arises).  I can never remember the right way around but Blyton does tell us that the Arabian camel has one hump and the Bactrian has two (and is also the more bad tempered). Dromedaries (a breed of Arabian camels, but I had to look that up) are best for riding, and are faster than “ordinary” camels.
  • Llamas are obstinate and self-willed, though sometimes ridden still. We are told they have a very nasty habit of spitting. 
  • The zebra. Zebras can be tamed, but not very easily. They become very tired if ridden for long. There was once a gentleman, however, who taught three zebras to run in harness with a pony and draw his carriage through the London streets; but they never became good tempered and were always ready to bite. Probably because they are wild animals and never truly domesticated. It must have been quite a sight though!


There are some people who think that all animals who live in the sea must be some kind of fish, but that idea is quite wrong. No animal written of in this chapter, except the shark, is a fish.

Who are these people? I know some people believe that whales etc are fish, but surely everyone has heard of seals and know they’re not a fish?

Anyway, she describes fish, how they breath underwater via gills and so on. Sea animals come to the surface to breathe (ie whales and sea lions). Fish have scales and fins, sea animals which do not belong to the fish family have no fins and have their bodies covered with fur. That just confuses things, doesn’t it? It sounds like there are a lot of furry fin-less whales swimming around.

  • Seals have two fur coats which are oiled. She mentions ladies’ seal-skin jackets which are hopefully a thing of the past now! From that it’s obvious that seals are hunted for their skins but she doesn’t say anything about how they are ‘collected’. Perhaps the brutal seal-clubbing that goes on was a step too far to describe?  There is a really good and long description of  the various parts of seal anatomy, but she doesn’t attempt to delve into the various different seal species.

London Zoo seal

  • Sea-lions aka “hair-seal” (I haven’t heard it called that before!), looks nothing like a lion (you can imagine some poor kids imaginations running wild with the name!). Blyton includes some ‘facts’ and anecdotes which I have included below:

They are very clever animals, and can be taught to perform all sorts of amusing tricks, which they seem to enjoy thoroughly… a sea-lion living in the Zoo would climb up and down a ladder, fire off a gun and kiss its keeper!

There was once a sea-lion who thought he would like a walk round the Zoo, so he climbed over his wall and over the railings and set off round the gardens. He scrambled over the flower beds and the grass, and suddenly arrived at the deep pool belonging to the polar bears. He thought the pool looked rather nice, even if it did have bears in it, so he took a header and dived in.

Alas! the bears did not like such a sudden visitor, and they attacked him. Before the keepers could rescue him he was so badly bitten that he died.

  • The walrus: Blyton feels the need to explain that the walrus  is a real animal, not just something made up by Lewis Carroll! I was interested to learn that the name comes from whale-horse.
  • The sea-elephant – which I thought might have been a manatee* but turns out to actually be the elephant seal. It has a curious trunk and huge size (it can grow to 20 ft long Blyton says – I just had to check that! and it’s true, exceptional males can get that big).  Thankfully they are not a conservation concern now, though Blyton says they were well-hunted for their leather-like skin.
  • The whale. Blyton confirms this is not a fish as it is warm blooded. Whales never leave the sea to go on land. If it happens to be thrown on shore by a storm, it is quite helpless, and has to lie there until it dies. How pleasant! Blyton says there are two kinds of whales – one with teeth and the other with long fringes of whalebone instead, used like a brush to sieve small fish from the water. Apparently the Greenland whale is the best known and is where we get most of our whalebone. (Greenland whale is also known as the bowhead whale or Arctic whale. I’d still argue that the blue whale or the whale shark is better known, but maybe not then!) The blubber and whalebone from one Greenland whale would have been worth 3-4 thousand pounds, (which is around £200,000 today!). Big whales were getting rarer in the 1920s due to over hunting, but other things are being used instead of whalebone so whaling is gradually being given up.
  • Porpoises and dolphins. Porpoises are apparently also known as sea hogs! Dolphins are such clever and interesting animals but hardly anything is said about them, or porpoises.
  • The shark, the only true fish of the chapter. With one snap of its cruel mouth it can bite a man’s arm or leg off, whoops, there’s a whole load of kids terrified to go into the sea long before Jaws was released!
  • The beaver. Blyton moves into fresh-water animals now and describes the beaver and how it builds dams.
  • Otters. I love otters so I was disappointed to get just a small paragraph about them.

I wonder if the Zoo just didn’t bother with fish seeing as they don’t really get a mention, or other sea-creatures like eels, crabs and so on.


Snakes are almost as bad as hyenas in Blyton’s eyes!

I do not think you will spend a very long time in the Reptile House at the Zoo. Modern and up-to-date though the Reptile House is, the inmates are not very pleasant. Snakes, crocodiles and alligators are evil-looking, and the tortoises are so sleepy and motionless that one soon tires of watching them.

I have to say that the reptile house was one of my favourite parts at Edinburgh. It had snakes, tortoises, poison arrow frogs and caimans amongst other things. I was so sad when I went maybe five or six years ago and discovered that they’d knocked it down!

She does then says that snakes have beautiful colouring, and move in a curious gliding way. Snake anatomy is described well too. Some people will tell you that snakes sting (Really?). Blyton explains that actually they bite – the “sting” is its forked tongue. She describes how they shed their skins and the anatomy of biting. Rattlesnakes, Indian cobras, King cobras, boa constrictors, pythons and anacondas all get a mention.

But it all gets brought back to how horrible snakes are:

The snakes at the Zoo are fed once a week, but I have never been to see them fed. I do not think I should like to see a snake swallowing a duck or a goat whole, and watch the animal slowly going down its neck and body. I think it would be a horrid sight, don’t you?

London Zoo cobra

So another interesting few chapters. It’s interesting how it swings from ‘amusing anecdotes’ about polar bears killing sea lions to very factual descriptions of anatomy etc, to Blyton’s clear animal biases and fascinating old ‘facts’ and names of animals.

I can only imagine what it would have been like reading this as a child before such a thing as television existed.

*As it turns out the manatee is a sea cow.

Next post: The Zoo Book part 5

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1 Response to The Zoo Book, part 4

  1. Francis says:

    Thank you Fiona.
    All the best to you.
    Many regards


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