Zoo celebrates 85 years of wowing visitors

The town had never seen anything like it. The queues snaked around the streets as thousands upon thousands of excited youngsters – and a fair few excited adults – queued to see the Black Country's newest tourist attraction.

The zoo's original penguin pool in 1937
The zoo's original penguin pool in 1937

This newspaper reckoned that in years to come, the opening of Dudley Zoo would be viewed as the "the most important event in the history of the town". And as the attraction celebrates its 85th birthday this weekend, there is no doubt it continues to mesmerise visitors just as it did in 1937.

From Cuddles the Killer Whale to Sheila the Cheetah, and Bonzo the Gorilla to Estar the Elephant, Dudley Zoo has been the backdrop to thousands of childhoods.

Today, the zoo attracts more than 300,000 visitors each year, and has just enjoyed a record January as it bounces back from lockdown.

But when it opened on May 6, 1937, it was considered to be one of the leading zoos in the world.

The result of an unlikely partnership between a peer of the realm, a sausage tycoon and an army captain, it must have exceeded all expectations when it opened its turnstyles for the first time.

The zoo was the brainchild of the Earl of Dudley to raise funds towards the upkeep of the castle. Ernest Marsh, founder of the Marsh & Baxter meat processing and butchery chain, became the first chairman of the zoo. Captain Frank Cooper, another businessman who previously ran a zoo in Oxford, had a lot of wild animals he needed to relocate, and he became the third member of the board.

On the opening day alone, 10,000 visitors made their way beneath the familiar wavy-roofed entrance to marvel at the sight of Bengal tigers, brown bears and sealions.

But this was only a taste of what was to follow. On the May bank holiday, official figures showed that more than 50,000 visited the attraction. But it was also estimated that a further 30,000 had to be turned away as packed buses, coaches and trains all converged on the town.

Its Modernist buildings, constructed around an 11th century castle, aimed to protect the welfare of the animals while meeting visitors’ demands for a clear view from a safe position.

Today it is home to 200 species, many of which are endangered including the Asiatic lions, Sumatran tigers, Bornean orang utans and Tibetan red pandas.

Many famous faces have played part in its history including comedian Sir Lenny Henry, who started out with weekly stand-up slots in the Queen Mary Ballroom and also worked as a barman in the Safari Night Club in the early 1970s.

The Queen paid a visit in 1994, when she opened a new interpretation centre in the castle.

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