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Belfast Zoological Gardens

Address Antrim Road, Belfast, BT36 7PN
Telephone 028 9077 6277
How to Find it: Signposted on the A2 Antrim Road North of Belfast
Open: All year from 10am
Area: 24 hectares / 60 acres
No of Species No of Animals Star Rating
Mammals 60 230 Conservation
Birds 48 250 Enclosures
Reptiles 5 36 Education
Amphibians 1 1 Recreation
Fish 10 40 Research
Total 124 557
Click here for a Link to the Zoo’s own Web Pages
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This critique last updated:  Nov 2010

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GoodZoos.com Reviews

Belfast Zoo might be forgiven for feeling like Britain’s forgotten zoo. Like so many of Northern Ireland’s attractions, it is virtually unknown on the British mainland except among zoo enthusiasts, and Ulster émigrés. Yet it ranks as one of the finest and most attractive zoos in the British Isles; it is a zoo with a collection of growing conservation value, it has a sound reputation for breeding and managing a wide range of species, and it plays a valuable role in the community of Northern Ireland. A quarter of a million people visit every year, and almost all of these are loyal, regular visitors from the province’s population of a million and a half.

The Bellevue Zoo (as it was originally known) began as an attraction within The Bellevue Pleasure Gardens, on the spectacular hillside of Cave Hill, north of the city of Belfast. The Pleasure Gardens themselves were the idea, in 1913, of Belfast City Tramways, part of the Belfast Corporation. They were looking for a way to encourage passengers onto the trams, and were hoping, too, to provide a new recreational resource for the citizens of Belfast. They developed 32 acres of the hillside in fine Edwardian fashion, with a network of zig-zag pathways, extensive planting of trees and shrubs, a tea house, and a floral hall. The gardens became a popular destination for day trips, and two decades later the temptation to enhance the attraction to include a zoo, at a time when zoos like Whipsnade, and Chester, and Paignton were opening their gates, proved irresistible to the Corporation. In 1933 a private collection of animals at the Pleasure Gardens drew more than two hundred thousand paying visitors, and the Corporation decided that the enterprise ought to be officially embraced. In September of that year the decision was made, and twelve acres of the gardens were swiftly developed at a cost of £10,000. On March 28th 1934 Bellevue Zoo opened, and the optimism of the Corporation was rewarded as visitors arrived in their thousands. 284,713 visitors came in the very first year of operation.

But then came the war, and the fortunes of the zoo declined. Most of the ‘dangerous’ animals were destroyed, and many of the rest were disposed of. The zoo struggled on through the post war years, but it was a sad and ailing collection. In 1962 the Parks and Cemeteries Committee took over the running of the zoo from the Transport Committee, and the future of the zoo came up for debate. The small 12 acre zoo had no real potential for improvement, and the options seemed to be either to move the animals to a new site, or to close the zoo down. The City Council owned 750 acres of adjoining land, and so eventually they made a larger tract of the hillside available alongside the old zoo. It was a perfect location, with a high escarpment rising up to provide a breathtaking view across the city to Belfast Lough and the sea. The man responsible for converting the wild hill into an attractive modern zoo was the zoo manager, John Stronge. Plans were drawn up in the 1970s, and the new Belfast Zoo opened in 1978. Stronge was trained as a horticulturist, and his influence shows clearly in the layout and design of the zoo. Everywhere there are plants and trees and shrubs, and the park has been landscaped so that the pathways weave and wind and every bend reveals a surprise. Fences are hidden within hedges. creating the impression. here and there, that the animals are unconfined. And as the paths meander gently up the hill, so they reveal more and more of the magnificent views.

The animal collection at Belfast is broadly mixed, reflecting its history as a city zoo. There are elephants and polar bears, lions, tigers, sealions, and penguins, chimps, and gorillas, and camels — a whole variety of instantly recognisable creatures. All are imaginatively housed, and genera lly, all are doing well. The bottom of the hill houses a variety of enclosures around a waterfowl pond. There are spider monkeys in this pan of the park, with a small but interestingly appointed island. Two antelope paddocks hold beautiful Indian blackbuck, and gemsbok. Sitatunga, graceful African antelope, are housed in a sloping, grassy paddock. and another holds a group of red lechwe, a vulnerable antelope from Central Africa.

With zoos elsewhere scurrying to divest themselves of their polar bears. Belfast Zoo has no such intention for its three bears. Their enclosure may be no larger than many disused bear pits elsewhere, but it has been lands caped against a high rocky crag allowing the polar bears to climb high and to look out over the sea. The bears make the very most of the enclosure, and they seem to be well balanced, and playful. using the high rocks to dive from into the pool beneath.
A modem, slate-roofed building is home to ostrich, and to zebra and giraffe that run together. It also houses Asian elephant. and the zoo has recently obtained a bull elephant, Luka.

One of the best features of the new zoo is the chimpanzee and gorilla house, opened in summer 1991 by Jane Goodall. The chimps and gorilla have similar accommodation — a large, landscaped outdoor area, walled,
with glass viewing windows. The chimp enclosure, indoors and out, is a rich playground, strewn with ropes and trunks, scramble-nets and branc hes, and even sporting some live trees, which the chimps have so far spared. The enclosure is home to a social group of nine chimps, and the group is growing. The pair of gorillas is a new addition, and they have yet to breed.

The penguin pool holds a good mixed group of gentoo penguins, rock- hopper penguins, Magellanic penguins, and king penguins. The birds, fifty six in all, were all reared from sixty eggs that were collected from the Falkland Islands in 1990 and 1991. The pool has good underwater viewing.
A notable breeding success for Belfast in 1992 was achieved with the Californian sealions, and this is one of the only zoos to provide underwater viewing for these beautiful creatures.

At the very top of the hill are the spectacled bears looking out over the crags. Belfast is one of only two British Zoos to keep these bears as a part of an international breeding programme (the other is Jersey Zoo), and they were rewarded with their first cub in February 1992. There are mara here as well in a grassy pen.

Winding back down the hill, the path lakes you past tigers against a craggy backdrop with a commodious pool, hyaena in a sloping field, and endangered Asian lions. There are delightful red pandas high in the trees, prairie marmots, and here and there are little densely planted cages for marmosets and tamarins — including golden lion tamarins.

A free flight aviary provides a walk-through opportunity to see birds like spoonbill, egrets, and storks, and ibis nesting high above a waterfall, upon a rocky bank.

Ring tailed lemurs roam free in the zoo. You may be lucky to spot them. There is an excellent farmyard that is popular with local children, a small nocturnal house, some reptiles, and a small play area. There are plans, if funding becomes available, to convert the old Floral Hall into an education/environmental resource centre.

A spacious new monkey house opened in 1992 has richly branched outdoor runs, and is home to Diana monkeys (vulnerable), black and white colobus monkeys, lion tailed macaques (endangered), and black lemurs (vulnerable). The choice of monkeys for the new house is an indication that Belfast Zoo sees its role as being more than just a recreational resource for the people of the province. John Stronge is determined that the zoo should also become a leading conservation centre.

Much of the original l930s zoo still stands, although it is now closed to the public, and has long ceased to hold animals except for occasional quarantine and veterinary cases.. Perhaps one day it could re-open without any living occupants as a museum — its cramped and heavily barred cages an uncomely reminder of the way we once kept and feared wild creatures.  But, for now, Belfast Zoo provides an illustration of the way that zoos have changed, making splendid use of the sixty acres it now has, with plans for a further fifty steep and rocky acres to use, perhaps, as an Alpine park for animals like ibex, chamois, and markhor. The zoo has been fortunate to have the support of the City Council who have been generous in subsidising the growth and development of the collection. They have created a fine zoo, one that the people of Northern Ireland can be proud of, and one that the people of mainland Britain are unfortunate to miss.


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