Isolation diary: Living near a zoo

When we first moved to Chessington it was synonymous with the Zoo. Anyone who lived in the area was used to being asked the, supposedly original, question “Do you live in the monkey house?” when we gave our address.

We liked to take the boys during the winter months when it was much less crowded – and free – and the animals looked quite pleased to see visitors. It wasn’t much of a zoo, though, and we weren’t too happy about the way the animals were housed, especially the large mammals – elephants, giraffes, lions, tigers and primates, even polar bears.  But I do have a few tales to tell from those times.

One winter’s day we went to say hello to the tigers. As we stood by the wire fence one male tiger came towards us, turned round, lifted its tail and sprayed me. I think it may have mistaken my striped faux fur coat for a potential mate. It stank! I had an awkward conversation with the dry cleaners the following day, but the smell remained and I had to throw the coat away. Years later the site banned animal print clothing.

I taught for a while in one of the local secondary schools and one year I spotted that a girl in my third year (Year 9) tutor group had an address at the Zoo. I knew there was housing for some of the animal keepers on site so assumed her parents worked there. I discovered my mistake when we went as a family to see the circus that was permanently sited at the zoo. I recognised her as she spun by her teeth from the roof of the big top. Her parents were acrobats not zoo keepers.

Talking of performances, a local drama group put on a panto each year. One year they decided to do Aladdin, complete with a pantomime camel. I suggested they take the character to meet a real camel at the Zoo, which we did with the co-operation of the owners, and it made a great publicity photo in the local press.

We were always slightly fearful that the big cats might escape, although as far as I know they never did. But one day someone broke in and stole some monkeys. The animals were recovered and the thief was arrested. The jokers on the local paper headlined it “Primate suspect held”.

Actually that wasn’t the last time monkeys have been stolen from the site. Back in 2006 a national search was launched to find a rare squirrel monkey called Spongebob that had disappeared from Chessington World of Adventures, the latest incarnation of the park.  He was found safe and well playing with some children in Clapham.

As you will have gathered from that last comment, Chessington Zoo eventually became a theme park. When it opened in 1987 it still retained some of the zoo elements. The much reduced animal park made no attempt to be comprehensive but showcased a number of disparate animal species in far better conditions. It has been remarkably successful in breeding critically endangered Western Lowland gorillas and other rare species. However I still feel uncomfortable seeing them, and other magnificent wild creatures, in captivity.

I’ll return to the delights and frustrations of living near a theme park another day.



Please note

We have been in full self-isolation since 16th March to protect my husband whose immune system is compromised.

If you are in self-isolation then join the Lib Dems in self-isolation Facebook group.

You can find my previous Isolation diaries here.


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames where she is still very active with the local party.

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