Take a trip back in time as city zoo celebrates 80 years of animal magic

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It survived the German Blitz and decades of decline, and today marks Belfast Zoo’s 80th year in existence.

First opened on March 28, 1934, it began as a set of pleasure gardens close to an old tramline.

Fast forward to 2014, and a weekend of events is planned to mark the anniversary for the much-expanded complex – which will include a “time travelling tour” to learn about the zoo’s early days.

But there have been some traumatic times in the decades leading up to this present milestone, costing the lives of dozens of creatures.

Manager Mark Challis, who has worked at the zoo since 1994, described its beginnings.

“Belfast Corporation, now called Belfast Council, put in a tramway from the city centre to Glengormley – which was in those days out in the sticks,” he said. “That proved somewhat popular, but they felt there was scope for better use of the tramway. So in our current car park, they put in pleasure gardens.”

What followed in the 1930s was “an explosion” of zoos being built throughout Europe; and Belfast decided to put its own at that spot.

It received almost 285,000 visits in its first year – roughly the same as it gets now with a much bigger population.

But Mr Challis branded the years that followed as perhaps the most trying in its history.

As Nazi bombs rained down on the city in 1941, the authorities became fearful that the exotic – and potentially deadly – array of creatures could escape if it was hit.

Some were moved, and it is even said that one baby elephant ended up being cared for by an elderly woman on the Whitewell Road.

But Mr Challis said rather than risk a rampage from loose lions or tigers, the zoo had to destroy 33 animals.

Another massive change came about two decades later.

“In the late 1960s and early 70s, the zoo had become quite run down,” said Mr Challis.

As part of a revamp, the 15 acre site was transformed into one of 50 -plus acres.

He said: “We’re absolutely delighted to be celebrating our 80th anniversary. The advances made by Belfast Zoological Gardens in the last eight decades are astonishing,” adding they are planning further developments later this year.