Tuesday 28 January 2020

Feeding time at Dublin Zoo in 1916 meant dingo dinners for the starving lions

Zookeeper Patrick Supple inside the monkey house in 1913
Zookeeper Patrick Supple inside the monkey house in 1913
Zoo superintendent Benjamin Ferrar with a chimp at Haughton House

In April 1916, everyone at Dublin Zoo was hoping for a busy Easter.

Then, as now, the zoo was largely funded by gate receipts. Elephant and pony rides and other activities augmented the income but, since the outbreak of war in August 1914, it had been a struggle to keep going.

The price of hay and other animal foodstuffs had risen, while visitor numbers had dropped. Council members, the voluntary group of surgeons, academics, scientists, lawyers and other professionals who ran the zoo, often used their own money to cover essential costs.

Despite this, the animal collection was still impressive with two elephants, 14 lions, three tigers, a gorilla, two chimps, a Hoolock Gibbon that had been a pet of a battalion of the Gordon Highlanders, as well as monkeys, birds, fish, bison, and many other animals.

The Shetland ponies and Sandari the elephant, were ready to give rides, and the restaurant at Haughton House - fortunately as it turned out - was very well stocked.

Dr Benjamin Banks Ferrar, the superintendent (the position now known as director) was a medical doctor and, in April 1915, he had accepted a temporary commission in Royal Army Medical Corps.

With many wounded Irishmen being sent home from the continent, he was on daily duty in a military hospital.

He spent time at the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham and at the Royal Barracks on the quays (now Collins Barracks). He continued to live in the zoo with his wife, Isabella, and children. In his absence, Isabella managed the zoo.


Throughout the war, wives and children of soldiers serving overseas were given free entry, while military personnel in uniform were allowed in for half price.

It was against this backdrop that the zoo opened at 9am on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916.

Records suggest that the gardens were moderately busy.

Dr Benjamin Banks Ferrar had gone to the Royal Barracks as usual, leaving the zoo under the management of Isabella.

Only one Zoological Society member signed the visitors' book that day.

She was a Mrs Draper of Grosvenor Square and she had brought with her the Misses Draper and Mr C. Draper. Everyone else was a paying visitor and therefore unrecorded.

When word filtered through to the zoo that there was trouble in the city, visitors and the majority of keepers and ground staff hurried home to protect their families.

Three younger keepers, Jack Supple, Jack Flood and Tommy Kelly, stayed in the zoo to help Mrs Ferrar look after the animals while the fighting continued.

On Thursday, April 27 rifle bullets passed over the gardens but there were no injuries, nor were there reports about animals being injured through fright.

The big challenge for Mrs Ferrar and her small team was to feed the animals with what was available within the zoo.

The stocks for human consumption in Haughton House restaurant could be used by many animals but the shortage of horse meat for the carnivores quickly became a major problem.

Under normal circumstances, the zoo would have received fresh supplies every few days but during Easter Week, it was not possible to bring quantities of meat to the zoo.

Dublin Zoo's lions were famous and much-loved in the city. The council was planning to help restock Europe's zoos with lions after the war and had already promised Antwerp Zoo a breeding pair as soon as was possible (the Belgium zoo's management had had to kill its lions during the bombardment of their city in 1914).

In Dublin, killing the lions would have been a very last resort but Mrs Ferrar could not allow the animals to starve to death.


Faced with terrible choices, she arranged for several old animals - including an old pony, a donkey, a goat and a few dingoes - to be slaughtered to feed the carnivores.

On Monday, May 1, fighting in the city had ceased and despite highly-restricted access to the Phoenix Park, the military authorities allowed horse meat to be delivered to the zoo.

It arrived just in time and was enough to keep going for several days.

On May 13, after nearly three weeks of closure, Phoenix Park was re-opened to the public and the zoo was able to receive visitors.

Mrs Ferrar was thanked for her courage in looking after the zoo in such difficult circumstances and given an engraved silver potato dish in acknowledgement of her work.

Catherine de Courcy is the Dublin Zoo historian

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