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Belfast Zoo due to hit the big screen

Date: 14 Jun 2018

Zoo is based on the true story of our ‘elephant angel’

It was lights, camera, action last year as Belfast Zoo travelled back to the 1940’s wartime when the movie, ‘Zoo’ was filmed onsite. Zoo is due to be released in cinemas across the UK and Ireland on 29 June 2018!

Zoo is based on the true story of our ‘elephant angel’. During World War II, the Ministry of Public Security issued a directive that all dangerous animals should be destroyed. This was to ensure public safety, in case the animals escaped if the zoo was damaged by German air raids.

On 19 April 1941, Mr A McClean (head of the Air Raid Protection Section) enlisted the help of Constable Ward, from the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and Sergeant E U Murray, of the Home Guard. A total of 33 animals were shot, including hyaena, wolves, a puma, a tiger, a black bear, polar bears, a lynx, racoons and a vulture.

During this time Sheila, a baby elephant, was protected and taken to the backyard of the North Belfast terraced home of zoo keeper, Denise Weston Austin. Here Denise comforted and cared for the young elephant as the bombs rained down upon Belfast.

When head zoo keeper, Dick Foster, left work in the evening, Denise took Sheila from her enclosure, walked her the short distance to her house at 278 Whitewell Road and walked her back up to the zoo in the morning. It seemed zoo staff did not know about this arrangement until Sheila chased a dog into a neighbour’s garden, breaking the fence. Sheila remained in the zoo after her evening activity was discovered. However, Denise’s fondness for the elephant continued and she visited Sheila in the zoo at night, during the air raids, rubbing her ears to keep her calm.

In ‘Zoo’, the story is seen through the eyes of a 12 year old boy named Tom who, with the help of his friends, tries to save ‘Buster’ the elephant. Starring Toby Jones (Infamous, Captain America), Dame Penelope Wilton (Pride and Prejudice, Downton Abbey) and with a supporting cast including Game of Thrones star Art Parkinson and Belfast’s Ian McIlhinney, the £2.8 million film was written and directed by Colin McIvor and produced by John Leslie (who is originally from Ballymoney).

Filming took place throughout the city at locations including Belfast Zoo, Belfast Castle, Union Street, Little Donegal Street and at the docks.

Zoo manager, Alyn Cairns, explains “Filming took place in the zoo with scenes acted out around the Cave Hill site and featuring some of the zoo’s very own stars, including the penguins, lions, giraffes and sea lions. However, filming also took place in the old zoo site of the 1940’s where the elephant house, which is still standing, was given a lick of pain to be featured in key scenes . Zoo staff spent many days and even some very late nights working with the cast and crew of the movie to get the shots needed.”

Alyn continues “The full story of the elephant angel came to light in 2009 when we were celebrating the zoo’s 75th birthday. Our team came across the, now iconic, photograph of an unidentified individual in, what appeared to be, a yard or a garden with an elephant. There was an enduring rumour or about the story of the ‘elephant angel’ but details were extremely limited and there were no further details in the zoo’s archive. With the support of visitors and the local media, the mystery woman was eventually identified when Denise’s relatives came forward. Little would Denise have known all those years ago that she would leave her mark on not only the history but that she would also be the inspiration for a feature film. The story of the elephant angel is a beautiful tale of the bond that zoo staff have with their animals and we can’t wait to see such a key part of Belfast Zoo’s history portrayed on the big screen.”

Shuttle Bus to and from Belfast City Centre

‘Zoo’ will be released in cinemas across the UK and Ireland on 29 June 2018 and, to celebrate, we will be providing a FREE shuttle bus which will run from the Visit Belfast Welcome Centre to our front door.

Get your tickets to see ‘Zoo’ this summer and then swing by with your little monkeys for a ZOOPER day out at Belfast Zoo.

Waddle over to visit the penguins and all of your other favourites at feeding time and find out more about the animals we care for and the work we do at the keeper talks.

Pose for a photo at the ‘zoo gates’ (coming July 2018) that are featured in key scenes from the movie and take part in an ‘elephant angel’ themed trail around the zoo to be in with the chance of winning an elephant prize pack!

Visit for more information, email or call 028 9077 6277.

Watch the trailer