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The history of Belfast Zoo

Our story begins with Belfast’s public transport system.

At the beginning of the 20th century, passengers from Belfast were transported to the villages of Whitewell and Glengormley by horse-drawn trams belonging to the Belfast Street Tramway company and steam tramways from Cave Hill and Whitewell. 

In 1911, the tram line was taken over by Belfast Corporation, which is now known as Belfast City Council.

Developing the pleasure gardens

The corporation decided to build a playground and pleasure gardens at the end of the line to encourage customers to use the service. 

The area was named Bellevue Gardens. Bellevue means good or pretty view. 

During the 1920s and 1930s, the gardens were a popular destination for day trips.

Bellevue steps at Belfast zoo


Building Belfast Zoo

In 1933, the corporation decided to install a zoological collection on the site.

Then, in 1934, 12 acres on either side of the grand floral staircase (a series of steps designed to reach the top of the hillside) were laid out as the zoo site. 

It took 150 men to build the site and the steps can still be seen from Antrim Road today. 

The zoo was opened on 28 March 1934 by Sir Crawford McCullough, Lord Mayor of Belfast.

The venture was supported by Councillor RJR Harcourt from Belfast Corporation and was partnered by George Chapman, an animal dealer and circus entrepreneur. 

It cost £10,000 to build and a total of 284,713 people visited the zoo in its first year.

Impact of World War II 

In 1941, the Ministry of Public Security ordered the destruction of 33 animals after north Belfast came under aerial attack during World War II. 

Animals, including lions, wolves and polar bears, were killed and new animals did not arrive until 1947. 

Several elephants survived the attacks, and one baby elephant was cared for by an elderly lady who lived on the nearby Whitewell Road.

Polar bear in Belfast zoo
  Tina, a baby elephant getting washed

 

The modern zoo

During the 1950s and 1960s, the zoo went into decline. 

By the time the corporation's parks committee took control of the site in 1962, restoration was badly needed and work began on the new zoo site in 1974. 

Since then our zoo has gone from strength to strength to become a leading conservation zoo which is respected globally for the work which we carry out. 

If you have any questions about the history of Belfast Zoo or if you would like us to send you a Belfast Zoo history information pack, email history@belfastzoo.co.uk or call 028 9077 6277 (extension 229).