Thursday, 2 October 2014

A Zoo of His Own

So this is a post I have been thinking about for a few weeks now. All inspired by the gentle BBC 1 drama 'Our Zoo' which is based on the recollections of June Mottershead who’s father George founded Chester Zoo.

 It was the trailer that did it. When June looks in the back of a van and exclaims in awe ‘What is THAT?’ and her father points and replies ‘that is a monkey and that is a parrot’ 

I turned straight to Himself and said ‘Granddad!’ I swear in another life my Granddad would have been George Mottershead. He always had a thing about animals, I honestly think he liked them more than people.
His first job as a boy was delivering groceries by cart. Only my Granddad being my Granddad didn’t ride a bike or pull it himself, oh no he used his goats to pull the cart, yes you read that right he kept goats and used them to pull a cart. 

I found this highly amusing when I first found out because of course I pictured him as the Granddad I knew and not a young boy walking with a goat driven cart.

At 15 the First World War was in full swing so he lied about his age and joined the Navy. He saw action, got a medal and was badly wounded. We don’t really know much about his war time experiences because like so many others he would never talk about it.
He did stay in the Navy for nearly 20 years though and quickly took on the role of looking after the ship’s mascot on whatever boat he happened to be on. This included the kind of animals you might expect, like various varieties of dog and at one point a donkey.  

Only my Granddad didn’t leave it there though, oh no, he used to bring animals home with him. There was a big blue and yellow macaw who lived in the corner of the sitting room and was a vicious bugger by all accounts. Except to my Granddad that is, they adored each other to exclusion of anyone else, my Granddad wept buckets when the bird finally died in his arms of pneumonia after 35 years of swearing and biting people, the bird not my Granddad that is, Granddad definitely swore but didn't bite.

There was the monkey who ran riot round the house (much like Mortimer in Our Zoo) The final straw being when some ill-afforded brand new curtains got shredded, the monkey had to go.

Like lots of working class families in the 20’s and 30’s there were chickens, rabbits in the garden and a dog or two in the house, but this being my Granddad there were also lots and lots and lots of exotic birds. Rather than growing much needed veggies, half the garden was a huge aviary full of canaries, love birds, cockatiels, green parrots and budgies, it must have been quite a sight and driven the neighbours mad with the noise!

Anyway Episode 2 of Our Zoo shows George heading off to Matlock to acquire two black bears. Yes you’ve guessed it my Granddad had one of those too!

For some reason better known to himself when his ship docked in Canada he thought it would be a good thing to bring a bear cub on board. There was a romantic story of the mother bear being shot by hunters and my Granddad bravely saving the cub, but I suspect far more likely was some dodgy drunken deal in a bar when it would have seemed like a great idea to buy a bear. Why on earth the captain let him keep it lord only knows but Granddad nursed it to adulthood and it became a great favourite with the crew.
The bear knew all the crew members by scent, and should a stranger board the ship it would rear up on it’s hind legs, put a paw on each shoulder and lean in to get a good sniff of them.
As you can imagine this was a pretty terrifying experience and when he managed to escape and do it to the Admiral of the fleet one inspection day chaos ensued!

On reaching dock said bear was dispatched with haste to the zoo where my Granddad used to visit him until he left the navy. I honestly have no idea what would have happened if there hadn’t been the incident with the Admiral. I’m guessing some zoo would have still gained a bear.
As a man with an elderly father, a wife, a mistress and 6 assorted children all wedged into a council house in Kent there was no way this was ever going to be a happily ever after me and my bear just chilling story.  
My Dad still remembers a family outing to Portsmouth Zoo as a small boy many years later. Without a car it was no easy journey from their home in Kent but my Granddad was determined to go after an old Navy chum popped in to visit one day and mentioned in passing that he had seen ‘your bear at the zoo the other day’.
Apparently the bear rushed straight over to the edge of the enclosure as soon as it saw my Granddad even though many years had passed.

So there you have it, the story of my Granddad and his mini zoo, not quite Chester I grant you!

*Edited to add

My Dad and Uncle who told the tale of the zoo visit were both small boys of 6 and 7 at the time of the visit.
 My Uncle said it was Bristol my Dad says it was Portsmouth, I plumped for my Dad's version because that's what good daughters do.
As it has been kindly pointed out to me that that there is no Zoo in Portsmouth I'm guessing Dad was wrong and my Uncle Gerald was right!


  1. I loved this! What a character your Grandad was. A wife, mistress, six kids and a menagerie, I surprised he found time to do anything. xxx

  2. What a wonderful story, Gisela - your grandad sounds like a fascinating chap. The kids and I have been watching Our Zoo; I know it's undemanding stuff, but it's entertaining and involving. We want Adam the black bear to come back from Belle Vue!
    Have you got any photos of your grandad and any of his animals/birds? xxx

  3. How wonderful! he sounds like a fascinating gent. I've been watching Our Zoo because it's so gentle and interesting, and although I'm not a fan of zoos, I always liked Chester. xxx

  4. Oh what a great story! He sounds like an amazing character. Bears were my favourite animal as a child. How wonderful that your grandad's bear recognised him. I haven't been watching The Zoo. Might have to catch up. Xxxx

  5. Even if this wasn't true it would be a brilliant story, but being a part of your family history makes it even better.

  6. YOUR GRANDDAD HAD A BEAR! That is unbelievably awesome. He sounds like a brilliant chap, so kind to his animals. I'm glad his bear remembered him.

  7. I've not seen 'Our Zoo' - but this is a great post! One small thing - I've never heard of Portsmouth (my home town) having a zoo - where was it?

    1. In my Dad's imagination it would appear! Please see edited post.

  8. I haven't seen the programme but your Grandad sounds like a really interesting man! it's such an incredible and a wonderful story of him, and with a bear! a bear! x x x

  9. How wonderful to have such an fascinating Grandad. I only managed to see one episode of Our Zoo (the joys of shift work) but I enjoyed it.

  10. How brilliant!! Your Grandad was an amazing chap by the sounds of things :-D