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Your zoo: Memories from a keeper in the 1950s

Disclaimer: This blog discusses many zoological practices that we do not support today, but that were part of the work of early zoos. As a forward-thinking conservation charity we are working to protect animals and their habitats in order to help halt species decline. You can read more about our conservation work here.

As we approach our official 100th birthday, we want to share with you some of the amazing stories we’ve heard from former staff, visitors and people who feel a close connection to Paignton Zoo.

Frances Earle was a keeper at Paignton Zoo in the 1950s. She reached out to us after we had incorrectly identified a photograph of her holding a baby chimp as another keeper, Phyllis Fairweather, in our blog post on Mary the Chimp (which was swiftly amended!).

Mrs Earle not only took the time to politely correct us, but also to share some of her incredible (and amusing) memories and photos from her time working here.

Frances croc head edited scaled

On Joe, the baby chimp from the misidentified photo:

“I was a keeper at the zoo in the 1950s and the person holding Joe (the baby chimp). The photo was taken in one of the paddocks behind the back driveway to the zoo. I would carry him around and show him all the animals. We would share biscuits and he loved sweets! He belonged to an animal collector and stayed for 4 months, I think.”

scan danielle.parsons 2023 03 21 12 36 16 edited scaled

On Herbert Whitley, Gerald Durrell and Ken Smith:

Herbert Whitley loved pigeons and had the largest collection of them in Europe. He was a very shy man, who would only come over to the zoo when it closed. I met him a few times.”

“Gerald Durrell the animal collector came occasionally and named me ‘Gassy’ because there was a famous black and white film being shown at the time called ‘Fanny by Gaslight’ – I never saw it.”

“The first time that the flu spread everywhere in the country – half of the staff were off sick. I felt pretty awful, but instead of walking to work, Mr Kenneth Smith would drive down to my digs in Goodrington and pick me up. All the work we could manage was to feed everything, sitting down and resting often.”

Frances Earle edited

On being a female keeper:

“My friend in Pets’ Corner was Trudy Smith. She had been rescued from Nazi Germany as a child and was adopted by a very kind elderly couple who sent her to a good school before she joined us as a keeper. There were only 5 female keepers in the whole of the British Isles at the time: 2 in Edinburgh, 1 in Manchester and me and Trudy in Paignton. We were 2 out of 6 total keepers looking after Paignton Zoo.”

“There was a very good aquarium and lots of fish varieties. It was a long way to the toilets from the top of the zoo and once one of the girls hid behind a bush in the aviary for a pee. Who should be behind another bush? One of the men!”

Trudy Sarah

On cheeky elephants and foul-mouthed birds:

“In the work compound behind the bear cage, we filled our buckets from a tap at the side of which was a 4×4 escape hole from the elephants’ compound. I couldn’t see them and they couldn’t see me, but when we filled our buckets, their trunks would come out. I held the ends of their trunks and filled them with water, even though they had a huge trough of water in their compound!”

“There was a Polish keeper named Peter who looked after the parrots. One very old parrot would climb out of its cage every morning and would sit and watch people pass by. They would try to make it talk, but all it could say was *some explicit words which we will omit*, which someone naughty had taught it. It rather shocked the grownups with their children.”

Frances Cuthbert

On other animals she remembers:

“A 7 foot boa contrictor came in for a time. It was a very rare albino snake and loved being handled. We noticed that there were tiny, blackish spots under its scales and found out they were lice! We sharpened a match and after a few days, managed to get them all out.”

“We had 3 lions: William, Sheila and Sue, all in one cage. One day, William the lion was leaning against the bars so I reached over and pulled out a few hairs from his mane. He swore at me!”

“We had a lovely brown bear called Mischa, who thrived on all the bits that were thrown to him to eat.”

“We had a lovely tame raven. We would give it a bowl of meat chopped up into the size of sugar lumps. It would pick up a piece, go the other side of the cage, put it down and make a hole with its beak to bury it. Later, it would dig it all out again to eat, covered in soil!”

Frances Serata

“The memories surge back”

As Mrs Earle closes her letter, she notes how all her memories ‘surge back’ as she writes. She finishes her letter, recalling the admission prices from her time at the zoo – 2 shillings and 2 pence (25p) – and an amusing addendum scribbled on the back of the envelope, “A fantastic bird is the pelican. Its beak can hold more than its belly can!”

Frances Joe

After receiving her letter, we were so impressed with her detailed memories that we invited her in to be interviewed on camera, as part of a Paignton Zoo history documentary which will be released later this year. There are a number of participants who have kindly volunteered to take part in this very special film, and we will be announcing more details about it in the near future, so watch this space!

We’re celebrating our centenary year. To discover more about Paignton Zoo’s 100 year history and our plans for the year, click here.

GloWild at Paignton Zoo

17th November 2023 – 2nd January 2024

We will be ending our centenary year in style with our biggest ever festive event!

Join us after dark for an immersive light experience featuring a variety of beautiful, interactive light installations, entertainers and a silent disco.