The Zoo at War

A BLACK RAT demonstration showing the dangers of filthy conditions in the trenches was just one of ZSL London Zoo’s unique contributions to the war effort, a new exhibition reveals today (Monday 4 August).

Visitors to the Zoo in 1914 were invited to see the feared rats close up, while the zoo’s wildlife experts explained the threats they posed to the Front Line.

The Zoo at War exhibition also tells how the Zoo was converted into a giant allotment, with all available space used to grow fruit and veg to feed both the animals and wounded soldiers recovering in local hospitals.

On display for the first time at ZSL London Zoo, The Zoo at War showcases historic news articles featuring the much-loved animals of the Zoo, from joyful images of soldiers returning on leave to see their animals to light hearted comic strips to lift the spirits of the nation.

Few new animals arrived at ZSL London Zoo during the war, with one very famous exception. Winnie the bear was a mascot for a Canadian regiment and given to ZSL London Zoo to be cared for when the regiment joined the battle in France. Frequently visited by author A.A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin, the bear was forever immortalised as Winnie the Pooh in the classic tales.

Photo of Winnie the bear with her keeper, with a background illustration from Winnie the Pooh book.

The exhibition tells how ZSL’s secretary Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell was recruited to the War Office as a captain in military intelligence at MI7, before acting as liaison with the new Department of Propaganda in the enemy countries – playing a key role in publicising the British peace terms.

Sir Chalmers-Mitchell was not the only member of staff to join the war, and almost two-thirds of ZSL London Zoo’s work force volunteered or were called up for service.

With the men away, many vacancies were open for the first time to women at ZSL London Zoo – including zookeeper roles, one of which was given to Evelyn Cheesman, who went on to become the first ever female Curator of Insects and a leading figure in entomology, studying invertebrates around the world.

Visitors to ZSL London Zoo can see The Zoo at War exhibition from today (Monday 4 August).

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