Whipsnade Zoo, through the eyes of four generations of Zoo keepers

by ZSL on

As Whipsnade Zoo commemorates its 90th birthday, we celebrate the work of one family that, over four generations, has dedicated almost 200 years to the founding and running of Whipsnade Zoo. It all began with his great grandfather, Albert ‘Bert’ Rodgers, explains fourth generation zookeeper Craig White…

My great granddad Bert worked on Hall Farm, which would later be purchased and converted to Whipsnade Zoo. He joined ZSL as the Zoo was being built, before it opened in 1931, and even walked some of its first animals – camels, elephants and llamas – from the local train station to the newly built Zoo! Bert was also one of the keepers who covered the Zoo’s white lion with hessian and brush during World War II, because it was an easy target for enemy bombers.

He went on to stay at Whipsnade for his whole career, and received a medal for his long service.

Albert Rodgers

Albert ‘Bert’ Rodgers, pictured in his dress uniform (c1930s), helped to lay the foundations for the Zoo in 1931.

Gerry Stanbridge, my grandfather, was next in line to join Whipsnade Zoo as a zookeeper. He eventually climbed the ranks to Head Overseer, in charge of all of the Zoo’s keepers, and even went to China to learn about caring for Père David's deer. The breeding programme he helped establish at Whipsnade was so successful the Zoo was able to support the reintroduction of the deer – having been classified as extinct in the wild – to a national park in China. The herd are still going strong today.

Gerry Stanbridge
Gerry Stanbridge, Craig’s grandfather, followed in his father’s footsteps and joined Whipsnade Zoo as a zookeeper (c1950s)

Gerry’s daughter Maureen, my mum, joined the Zoo and eventually married a zookeeper called Andy White – my dad! While Maureen went on to become Head of Retail and Admissions, Andy rose to Head of the birds section, before becoming overseer like my grandfather before him.
I’ve still got the dress uniform he wore in this photo. It was all tailored, with silver buttons, and Dad was really proud of it. In the morning you’d have your scruff on, and in the afternoon you’d patrol the Zoo, or supervise the animal rides in your suit.

Andy White

Andy White, pictured left in his dress uniform (c1970s) was the third in Craig’s family to join Whipsnade Zoo as a zookeeper. He had a skill for hand-raising birds, says Craig, and rose to Head of Birds.

One of his great loves was penguins, I think he enjoyed how exotic and strange they were. I remember going up to the Zoo as child to help him feed the chicks at night. He loved big animals too and was lucky enough to go to Nepal in 1998 to bring back two greater one-horned rhinos – Behan and Beluki (who are still with us today) for the international breeding programme.

He worked at the Zoo for 47 years and received a medal for his long service, presented to him by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh.

Andy White 
Andy White, Craig’s father, journeyed to Nepal in 1998 to bring back two greater one-horned rhinos to Whipsnade Zoo.

And then it was my turn to join. Well, with a family like that, I’m not sure I could be anything else! I joined the Zoo in 1993, and spent 25 years as a zookeeper before moving to the transport team, where I source fresh food and leaves for the elephants and other animals.

My father’s relationship with rhinos continued through me – my favourites to work with were the white rhinos. Working with such a big animal is incredible. They have so much personality, they’re such lovely things.

Craig White

Craig White, pictured with white rhino female Tuli (c2015), is the fourth generation of his family to join Whipsnade Zoo as a keeper.

Another fond memory for me was hand rearing a pygmy hippo called Tanase. My wife used to come up and help me. As a calf the little hippo wouldn’t go to the toilet unless it was in warm water. So every time I had to lift her into a barrel of warm water. And hippos are like a bar of soap when they get wet!

Whipsnade is such a special place for my family. It’s been our life, everything revolved around the Zoo, and we’ve been lucky to have it. I like to think the Zoo’s been lucky to have us too.

Whipsnade is celebrating its 90th birthday on 23 May 2021. Read more about Craig’s story, and the work of long-serving zookeepers Joy Lear and Don Glyn, in the spring 2021 issue of Wild About magazine which our Gold members receive.

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