A German youth’s vision

Saturday, 21 January 2012 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By D.C. Ranatunga

It was the adventurous spirit of a young man from Hamburg, Germany that set the ball rolling in setting up a zoo in Sri Lanka.

His family – the Hagenbecks – is said to have displayed a seal in a bath tub and made money! They had started building an open-air Hamburg Zoo towards the end of the 19th century and one of two brothers, John, was sent to the East to collect animals.

While he was asked to stock the animals in Colombo and ship them, the other brother Carl started selling the animals in Europe. Both were in their early twenties.

John decided to stay put in Sri Lanka and started a private zoo on an 11 acre block of land he leased at Dehiwala. He had first used this land to keep the animals prior to sending them to Europe. This was around 1925.

Early records indicate that he had earned an income of around Rs. 10,000 annually in the early 1930s through an entrance fee. The depression in the ’30s forced John to abandon the zoo and go into liquidation. Some enthusiastic members of the Game and Fauna Society persuaded the Government to buy the zoo. The Dehiwala Zoo thus became Government property on 1 July 1936.

The Government had paid Rs. 15,000. The transaction was handled by Government Agent – Colombo R.M.M. Worsely, Treasury Representative H.C. Christoffelsz, Dr. W.C. Osman Hill of the Colombo Museum and Aubrey Weinman – the big, burly Major who became Superintendent of the zoo in 1947. Till then the Government retained John’s Superintendent, F.E. Goonesinghe.

The Government Agent’s Administration Report states that in the first year, there were 121 mammals, 151 birds and 21 reptiles in the zoo.

The zoo became an autonomous Government department in 1954 and Major Weinman became the first Director. Reminiscing on the Weinman days, his successor Lyn de Alwis, who joined the zoo in 1955 with an honours degree from the University of Ceylon, writes: “He put aside the Major’s ‘cane’ for a formidable thick wooden round bar with a curved handle and an iron spike at the other end, which passed for a walking stick. Long before he came into view, the sound of the spike in the walkways was sufficient to galvanise even Dehiwala’s ‘thugs’ into action and there were then 50 to 60 of these unemployed relief workers in the zoo.

“‘The Major’ as he was popularly known, cashed in on people’s curiosity to see exotic animals and having been moulded in the Donovan Andree School of ‘show-biz,’ he didn’t disappoint. He flooded the zoo with mammals, birds, reptiles and fishes which, though poorly housed, drew steadily increasing crowds. In those days there were no restrictions on animal trade, and with Africa and Asia ‘crawling’ with trappers, boat loads of animals would arrive in the Colombo harbour.”

Lyn de A, who had written extensively on his tenure at the zoo and later as the Head of the Wildlife Department (these have been published in ‘Footfalls in the Wild’ – the first publication of Lyn de Alwis Memorial Wildlife Trust) speaks of the trying times in the mid-1950s.

“We had no drinking water, for what came via the pipes was the highly nitrogenous mulch from the stagnant Lower Pond, throbbing with salmonella and shigella. Good water was brought in buckets by cart. We had only one vehicle, a rather tired Bedford lorry. We had no electricity except for rare occasions when the Urban Council decided to turn it on. The telephone was another nightmare. In those days Colombo was a trunk call and if we did get one call for the day the operator was beside himself with pleasure. Such were the odds against us.”

The cleanliness of the Dehiwala Zoo from the early days is captured in a comment made by Lord Sempill in the Visitor’s Book: “When a friend says to someone new to Colombo ‘what about an afternoon at the zoo?’ one hesitates, seeing ahead a few tiring hours in an atmosphere of bad smells, dust, litter and regulations. What a pleasant surprise awaits the person paying a first visit to the Zoo in Colombo.” “It does not smell like one,” is an often repeated comment in the Visitor’s Book. It has always been a clean, colourful and friendly zoo.

Studio Times’ publication ‘Handbook for the Ceylon Traveller’ (1974) describes why Dehiwala is so different from other zoos.

“There are no heated houses for apes or concrete mansions for elephants. Instead, you will see animals frolicking in little glades, birds winging their way through the trees and gibbons leaping from branch to branch in their island home. Or take the terrain, its undulating lines emphasised by dense foliage, bright flowers and grassy slopes which cradle the animals in shaded enclosures.

“Then there are the elephants. You will see them in the largest numbers outside a game park. There are 12, led by a matron of 50 named Letchimi (she survived to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the zoo in 1986) and tailed off by little one-year-old Mithura. These elephants are gleaming black unlike their ashy-skinned counterparts in temperate zoos. Watch their cavorting in the flowing waters of their bathing pools every morning, their mock battles when free in their corral, or their serious countenance as they heave tons of foliage for their friends’ dinner... Wait for their daily performance at 5:15 as they bow and bend, sit, stand on two feet and even go waltzing along to the beat of a drum. It is not an ordinary circus act but a pleasant display by educated elephants who enjoy it most of all.

“This feeling of happiness pervades the air. There is a sense of wellbeing reflected in the fine animals you will see. Massive gorillas, imperious tigers, black panthers, rare white-lipped deer, mountain lions from the Americas, breeding rhinos and giraffes – they will all infect you with their zest and vivacity.  Similar good relations are extended to the world of reptiles.”

Lyn de A talks of the human element of the entertainer ‘Stephen,’ the great chimp. “He waited for Major Weinman, Dr. Pillai – our veterinarian and myself to complain that Violis his keeper was neglecting him. He would rattle his chain against the bars, stamp furiously, hair on end and scream until we drew alongside his chair. He would then take our hands in his and gently rub his face to show the stubble which had not been shaved for a day or two. Then we were obliged to shout at Violis and order an immediate shave – and we had to stay and powder him when it was all over.” These were happenings three or four decades ago. Things may have changed over the years – hopefully for the better. I haven’t been to the zoo for ages!