Express & Star

Keeper's Dudley Zoo memories

Dudley Zoo was his playground as a child - with the castle as an unusual climbing frame.


Dudley Zoo was his playground as a child - with the castle as an unusual climbing frame.

And more than 70 years later, former keeper Les Baker had a trip down memory lane when he returned to his childhood home.

His first visit to the zoo was in 1937 — the year it opened — with his father, who became the elephant keeper at the complex.

George Edward Baker was in charge of elephants until his death in 1952. He had been working with elephants at a travelling circus but wanted to settle down and brought his young family from the south of England to the Midlands.

One of the attractions for George was that the job included family accommodation in Castle Lodge set within woodland in the zoo grounds.

His son says he can clearly remember living in the lodge, which has since been demolished. The 77-year-old, of Woodsetton, said:"As a lad living on site, I loved it.

"Imagine having a zoo as your playground, and there is no part of Dudley Castle that I haven't climbed at some time."

He also recalled tales from his father's time at the zoo, including a sticky situation on a summer's day in the late 1940s. He said: "Dad paraded an elephant on the forecourt of the elephant house for the benefit of a throng of visitors when a woman lost control of a pushchair, with her child inside it, as she was manoeuvring it down steps.

"She emitted a piercing scream that caused the elephant to panic and circle around wildly, trumpeting very loudly and flapping her ears. That forecourt cleared in seconds, and I personally observed one rather large male visitor vault the fence that borders the hill down to the turnstile area.

"Thankfully, Dad finally brought the trembling elephant to a stop, crooning to her, as was his wont, and not for the first time in my life I had reason to reflect and admire my dad's courage."

Mr Baker's brother Len saw an earlier example of their father's bravery.

Father and son were on their way home, and when they got to the bear pit saw to their astonishment that a Himalayan brown bear had dug underneath the high fencing to get out.

Les said: "The bear was shuffling about on the other side of the fence that separated the zoo from the public road. Dad quietly instructed Len to hot-foot it back to the stores for re-inforcements, while he kept the bear distracted by lighting and flicking the contents of his box of Swan Vesta matches towards the escapee. I don't know if the bear was subsequently netted or tranquilised but he was recovered."

As schoolboys Les and Len worked part- time looking after the pony rides, and almost inevitably Les joined the zoo when he finished his education, working with lions from 1949 to 1950. He later became a cartoonist working under the name Clebak.

He said:"I left in 1950 but always treasured my time living and briefly working at Dudley Zoo."

Zoo spokeswoman Jill Hitchman said:"It's always interesting to meet former employees and listen to their stories, and Les certainly has many of those."

Sorry, we are not accepting comments on this article.