Tuesday, 22 September 2009

From Regent’s Park to South Kensington

Where do famous London Zoo animals go when they die?

For Chi Chi, London’s famous giant panda, the answer was the Natural History Museum. This set me thinking about other animals that have made the same postmortem journey across town from Regent’s Park to South Kensington. Here are a few I can think of, though I’d really appreciate any other suggestions.

For a start, there’s Brutus a circus lion who had killed his keeper and whose man-eating reputation made him a serious draw with the British public during the 1890s. According to a superstition, the death of a lion portends the death of a monarch and spookily Brutus died just days before Queen Victoria in January 1901. His bust is to be found – though not seen – in the zoological storehouse of the Natural History Museum.

Then there’s Winnipeg the black bear (right), a mascot of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade. In 1915, when they went off to Europe to fight in the First World War, a lieutenant in the regiment dropped her off at London Zoo for safe keeping. It’s there that Winnipeg won over a young boy called Christopher Robin Milne who decided he’d call his own teddy Winnie. By the time Winnipeg died in 1934 and made her way to the Natural History Museum, Christopher Robin was 14 years old and his father Alan Alexander (A.A.) Milne had given the world the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

Finally, take Brumas, a baby polar bear born in Regent’s Park in 1949, a first for any British zoo. She was so popular with the public that 1950 saw record attendance with more than three million visitors, a figure that has not been surpassed since. Fortunately for the Zoo, after Brumas died in 1958 and went to South Kensington for preservation, there was only a lull of a few months before Chi Chi reached London take over her crowd-pleasing duties at the zoo.

All this raises the interesting question of about how this connection between the zoo and the Natural History Museum came about. It might sound like the relationship is so self-evident that no explanation is needed, except that it wasn’t always the case. When it was founded in 1826, the Zoological Society of London set about landscaping Regent’s Park to house a collection of live animals but also established a museum in Bruton Street in Mayfair. So any of the exotic creatures that passed away at the zoo went straight to the Society’s museum rather than to the Natural History Museum (or the British Museum (Natural History) as it was then known).

In fact, at this period of the 19th century, most naturalists considered the Zoological Society’s museum superior to the British Museum. As Charles Darwin wrote to a colleague upon his return from the Beagle voyage in 1836, “The Zoological Museum is nearly full & upward of a thousand specimens remain unmounted. I daresay the British Museum, would receive them, but I cannot feel, from all I hear, any great respect even for the present state of that establishment.”

That changed in 1855 when the Zoological Society decided to close its museum and disperse its massive wealth of animal material. As far as I can tell from dipping into a couple of histories of the Society, their reasoning was twofold. First they had so much material that their accommodation – by now on the West side of Leicester Square – was wholly inadequate. More importantly, perhaps, the Keeper of Zoology John Edward Gray had done wonders at the British Museum, which had by this time come to be considered Europe’s preeminent zoological repository. So the Zoological Society sold its most important specimens to the British Museum for £500. By my reckoning, this is the rather circuitous route that the Natural History Museum came to have first dibs of any ex-Zoo animals. But if anyone knows any different, please get in touch.

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