History of Belfast Zoo

Old picture of boys feeding an elephant in the zoo

The story of Belfast Zoo begins with the citys 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, now 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, meaning good or pretty view.

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

Building Belfast Zoo

In 1933, the corporation decided to install a representative 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 Bellevue Zoo.

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, the then 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

Many of the animals in the zoos first collection arrived in Belfast by boat.

Daisy the elephant travelled on the Heysham steamer and, after she was removed from her crate, she was walked by zookeepers from the Belfast docks to Antrim Road, a distance of between five and six miles!

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 the collection was not restocked until around 1947.

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

The identity of the woman and her family is still unknown, despite many attempts to trace them over the years.

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, the council has continued to support the zoo, donating £1.5 million every year to help run and promote the site.

For more information about the history of the zoo, email history@belfastzoo.co.uk

If you would like to receive an information pack about the zoo’s history, email history@belfastzoo.co.uk or phone 028 9078 2082.