“Our Zoo” by June Mottershead is the true story of the Chester Zoo which was dramatized by the BBC and recently aired on the ABC.
Having seen the series, I was prompted to read the book. I couldn’t believe that, in the early thirties, people with no scientific training could actually open zoos, or anything like them, but apparently you could. Luckily for the animals at Chester Zoo, June Mottershead’s father was a visionary, and true but unsentimental lover, of the animals in his keeping.
June is the youngest member of the Mottershead family. In 1930 June’s father , George, moved his family and parents to Oakfield estate, a small-holding of seven acres with a big old Victorian house, along with some animals from a small zoo at Shavington. June was only three, and her earliest memories are a little sketchy, but she soon launches into wonderfully evocative detail. The book differs from the series, which was produced with June’s blessing, but as she says, the series is a drama not a documentary. However, the book is engrossing for its details of all the animals, their pecadillos and personalities brought to life by June’s conversational narrative.
There is so much to like about the story. George Mottershead had always wanted to have a zoo, ever since he saw one as a small child, but announced to his father after visiting a zoo, that his zoo would be a zoo without bars, and he would build it. And this is exactly what he does. It is an amazingly improbable story. June grows up thinking that having exotic animals such as Mary the chimpanzee as companions is normal. There are so many funny and touching anecdotes which educate as much as entertain: the ex-menagerie polar bear who didn’t know what to do with the pool built for him, the runaway tapir who gets stuck in a turret, ferrying a collection of reptiles, African grey parrots, cranes and monkeys in a Hillman Minx after picking them up from a Blue Funnel Line Ship, escapee Himalayan bears.
Chester Zoo grew from what seemed almost a glorified back-yard, home-made menagerie to one of the most important zoos in the world in a short time. It was a trail-blazer in so many ways, reflecting the man who started it all.
June Mottershead was in her mid 80s when she wrote this. The hard copy edition with photographs is excellent for putting faces and images to names and stories.
The libraries have a copies in large print, normal print and MP3 formats.
Chester Zoo has a wonderful website with information about its history, current operations, and more.