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Chester Zoo

Address Upton by Chester
Telephone 01244 380280
How to Find it: Take the M53 in to Chester and turn right on the A41 towards Birkenhead. The zoo is signposted off the A41 about 2 miles North of Chester
Open: All year from 10 am, closed Christmas and Boxing day.
Prices: Please refer to the web site
Area: 45 hectares 111 acres
No of Species No of Animals Star Rating
Mammals 87 741 Conservation ** *
Birds 183 793 Enclosures ** *
Reptiles 67 341 Education ** * *
Amphibians 14 190 Recreation ** * *
Fish 137 1317 Research *
Total 488 3382
Click here for a Link to the Zoo’s own Web Pages
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This critique last updated:  Nov 2008

Official Description

Chester Zoo is one of the foremost zoos in Europe. In the sheer size and diversity of its collection, in the compelling innovation of its design, and in the breathtaking beauty of its gardens, it has had a profound influence upon the style and development of zoological gardens all around the world.

It may seem remarkable that a small Roman city in the North of England should possess such an outstanding zoo, but then the founder of Chester Zoo was a remarkable and redoubtable man. His name was George Mottershead, and he was one of the last great animal collectors of this century. The son of a Cheshire nurseryman from Shavington, near Crewe, he began collecting animals as a child, the sort of animals that arrived unexpectedly in packages of exotic plants – lizards, spiders, and all manner of insects. When he was nine years old his father, Albert, took George and his brother to see the animals at Manchester's Belle-Vue Zoo. It was 1903, and zoos were dank and unsavoury places then. In particular, one image engraved itself upon George Mottershead's mind; it was the image of an elephant, shackled, confined behind bars, and compelled to ring a bell to beg forfood. It was a pivotal experience that would determine Mottershead's destiny, and would lead him to declare his life's ambition – to build a zoo without bars.

The Great War almost put an end to that ambition. A German bullet damaged Mottershead's spine, and he was confined to a wheelchair for several years. But his collection of animals grew nonetheless, and eventually he began to search for a suitable home for the zoo he dreamed of building. Oakfield House in Upton, a leafy suburb of Chester, with its nine acres of gardens and its easy access to the railways and to the busy centres of Manchester and Liverpool, seemed the perfect place. The local council did not easily consent to the idea of having wild animals on their doorsteps, and lofty voices were raised in protest. But Mottershead prevailed, and Chester Zoo had its inauspicious public opening in 193 1.

The early years were not easy ones for the young zoo. George Mottershead and his family made huge sacrifices to ensure the survival of the growing collection. It was a time that Professor Lord Zuckerman of London Zoo called 'an era of decay' for zoos. Yet Chester Zoo grew and flourished. 'Always Building' was the motto of the zoo, and true to that sentiment Mottershead began to purchase every plot and parcel of land that he could that bordered onto the estate. Within a few decades the zoo had grown to 111 acres, and zoo farms, houses, and car parks accounted for more than four hundred additional acres of land. Today that figure may have shrunk very slightly with the sale of some of the land to help support the zoos finances, but Chester is still a large zoo by the standard of most city zoos, and it ranks as the second largest collection of animals in the country housing almost three and a half thousand animals.

Here at Chester, many of the great concepts in zoo design were born and nurtured. Mottershead was a zoo pioneer, strongly influenced by the revolutionary ideas of Hamburg's Carl Hagenback who virtually invented the modem zoo, and by Heine Hediger who introduced the science of ethology – the study of animal behaviour – into the design of animal enclosures. At Chester Mottershead seized upon Hagenback's idea for moats and ditches as an alternative to Victorian ironwork, and extended their use throughout the zoo, often with species that Hagenback had not considered. Most notable perhaps were the great apes. When chimpanzees were released into their new enclosure at Chester in 1956, a group of grassy islands separated from visitors by no more than a twelve foot strip of water, Mottershead and his keepers could only cross their fingers and hope. Nobody knew in those days if chimps could swim. It turned out that they could not (or would not), and today the chimp islands are a centrepiece of Chester Zoo, holding a social troupe of around twenty almost exclusively zoo-bred chimps. Chimpanzees are social creatures, and in the wild they live in community groups 15 – 120 animals strong. Very few zoos have either the facilities, or indeed the animals to mimic these conditions, but Chester not only provides the space, it also keeps all of its animals together in the largest chimp colony in Britain, and undoubtedly one of the finest captive groups in the world. The new chimp house, a high conical-roofed building opened by the Princess of Wales in 1988, is a masterpiece of design. It allows the chimps almost twice the island space they traditionally had, and then provides perhaps the best indoor chimpanzee area in Europe. The climbing indoors is a huge wooden construction, slung this way and that with thick ropes, and reaching high into the roof. The chimps can play indoors or out, whichever they choose, and the visitor can sit and watch them, whatever the weather. Good signs provide information about the chimps, and there is such a complex, political social structure to watch an all-powerful dominant male, arrogant young upstart males, nursing mothers, adolescents, infants, elder statesmen, matriarchs, four generations in all – if you go to Chester Zoo and only stay to see the chimps, you will have had your money's worth for sure.

Also behind moats are successful breeding groups of Sumatran and Bornean orang utans on islands leading off a large and purpose-built orang house. The spacious indoor accommodation seems slightly wasted, and could perhaps be improved with the addition of more climbing facilities. Nevertheless, the orangs make a terrific impression.

Chester Zoo has eleven miles of tarmac pathways, and certainly demands more walking than any other British zoo, except perhaps Whipsnade. There is no economical route to see the whole zoo without having to walk a very long way. You should allow a whole day to do justice to this zoo; or better still, visit twice. Large pushchairs are hired out at the main entrance, and their use is recommended to families with young children.

The difference between Chester and most other urban zoos seems to be the emphasis upon space. The central lion enclosure, for example, is a wooded acre with thirty or forty trees, surrounded by chainlink fencing. The fencing was another Chester innovation. It was introduced at a time when lions were kept only behind heavy iron bars, and Chester's enclosure was built in the face of extreme local opposition. Again however, the idea proved more than adequate, and it set a new standard for the keeping of big cats that was copied worldwide. It was the enclosure at Chester that finally persuaded Wiltshire County Council to sanction Britain's first lion park at Longleat in 1966.

Visitor Reviews

Review by David Lomas 1st November 2008

Without doubt Chester Zoo is one of UK's top zoos. The Zoo is 75 years old and has continually expanded and updated.  Firstly, the zoo gardens are huge and even the most dedicated visitor will have to be selective in what they plan to see in a day and may well resort to the monorail in order to take in the whole zoo and rest those aching feet.


Until recently, the zoo was split into two halves joined by a single bridge linking between the Asian Elephants and the Andean Condors. Now there's new footbridge that connects you from the Asian Lions to the 'Twilight Zone' – a multi-species walk-through  indoor enclosure featuring bats – via the newly established 'Asian Steppes' which includes two spacious enclosures for their Cheetahs.


Over recent years there's been a shift to collecting into their animals by geographical groups and thus moving away from the more traditional taxonomy grouping of animals by genus. So, the relatively new 'Realm of the Red Ape' which centres on Orangutans also hosts Lar Gibbons – who share their rainforests and in this case the outdoor enclosures with their larger cousins – alongside reptiles and squirrels from the same forests. This approach is repeated with the 'Spirit of the Jaguar' where you can observe Jaguars alongside Leaf-cutter Ants and tree frogs; the 'Elephants of the Asian Forest with its Asian Elephants, Great Indian Hornbills, Tree Shrews, Jungle Fowl and some spectacularly large fish; and South American Guanco, Vicuna, Caybara, Brazilian Tapir, Andean Bear, Common Rhea, Tamarin and Marmosets form a 'Bears in the Cloud Forest' collective. Additionally there's the 'Secret World of the Okapi' and 'Islands in Danger' with its Komodo Dragons. These groupings really do add interest and deliver important educational messages to all visitors as they contextualise the larger mammals and their relationship with their environment.


The signage is varied and interesting, the messages are educational and are very strong on conservation. With firm Chester Zoo favourites – their Rothschild's Giraffes; Black and Indian Rhinoceros; Chimpanzees; Tropical Realm (with reptiles and tropical birds);Asian Elephants and Lions; Sea Lions; and Penguins – this is a zoo you can return to again and again and never tire.


Review submitted by K Smith March 2008

My family are very lucky having wonderful Chester Zoo on our doorstep. We have a couple of visits a year and each trip is great.  The zoo is huge and there is so much to see, even if you were there all day it would be difficult to see  everything.


As you walk in there is a real 'wow' factor as immediately you are in front of the elephants.On the day we visited the younger ones were having mud baths which amused all the crowd. I say crowd but don't let that put you off. This zoo is so vast that even on its busiest days you can get up close to the animals, especially if you choose your route carefully.


For me one of the highlights is the new 'realm of the red ape' where the beautiful and worryingly endangered orangutans now live. They must also love their new home as I believe a baby has been born there already.


The komodo dragons are fascinating, and have a baby story all of their own. The variety of animals is one of the attractions, from rhinos and giraffes to the miniature monkeys there is something for everyone. Just a word of warning, do be careful in the 'twilight zone' where  the free flying bats live. My daughter was extremely unlucky and got pooped on whilst we walked through. Not sure she'll go through again! 

That aside I would highly recommend Chester Zoo. It really is a great day out!


Review submitted by David Beilby September 2006

I have been a member of Chester Zoo for about 6 years now and even in that time the zoo has changed considerably.  First there are the major new new elephant developments, from the 2 acre paddock to the 2900 square metre house which also houses tree shrews, great hornbills, green peafowl, two species of asian fish, two species of squirrel, elongated tortoises and azure-winged magpie.  Also something new is the Tsavo cafe , which is an african themed restraunt overlooking warthogs, mongoose and black rhinos.  The black rhinos themselves also have a new house, again African themed. The zoo has used moats rather than iron bars to contain animals and this is mainly shown in the west zoo where most of the paddock animals are enclosed.  There is a new bat house, a Huge 5000 square metre spectacled bear enclosure and a large proportion of the zoo critically endangered monkeys.

In the east zoo there is a spectacular Islands house which boasts the only breeding pair of red bird of paradise as well as Komodo dragons.  There is a jaguar house, a new okapi exhibit and a major new development, The £3 million orangutan house called realm of the red ape.  It is one of the best zoos in the world so try to visit soon and prepare to be amazed .

Almost every group of animal that you might expect to find in a zoo is represented at Chester. The Californian sealions are spectacular, drawing huge appreciative crowds at feeding times, and they have an off-show breeding beach where young sealions have been born. The huge giraffe house, once famed for holding the world's tallest measured giraffe, now holds a small mixed group of Masai and Rothschild's giraffe, with a spacious outdoor paddock. The penguin pool with its large picture windows for underwater viewing is magnificent, and enormously popular. There are around thirty Humboldt's penguins here, and the zoo has boldly resisted the usual temptation of trying to create the impression of an Arctic environment with concrete and tile, and instead has provided a generous sandy beach, which accurately reflects the true wild environment of these birds. There is a large offshow area for the penguins too, and Chester has an excellent breeding record. Flamingos wade beautifully in a large central lake. Rhinos (black and Indian), are in low walled, moated paddocks, so too are Brazilian tapirs. A pair of black rhino, Parky and Esther, are both captive bred and their first calf, Emma, was born in February 1991.

Elephants have long been associated with Chester. George Mottershead, true to his vision, was one of the first zoo directors to keep these animals unshackled, and the housing of elephants was a problem that he approached with characteristic directness. 'In most zoological gardens', he wrote, 'the largest of all animals have to be content with perhaps the smallest amount of room in proportion to their size.' This was not to be the case at Chester. The new elephant house, built in 1959, was a showpiece covering 20,000 square feet, leading to a moated paddock over an acre in size. It is a bold, cathedral-like building, heated indoors in the winter months, with colourful indoor displays of flowers, and it is a wonderful place to get close to some fully grown elephants. It was Mottershead's ambition to establish his zoo as a significant breeding centre for elephants, and he lived to see the birth of Jubilee, an Asian bull whose arrival during the Queen's Silver Jubilee celebrations of 1977 earned him his name. He was the first elephant to be conceived and born in Britain.

Another example of the thinking on a grand scale that characterises this zoo is the quite astonishing tropical house. Built in 1964, this building is almost sixty feet high, with a floor area of around 40,000 square feet. As well as housing the reptile collection the building also features quite luxuriant undergrowth of tropical palms, rubber trees, hibiscus, bougainvillea, banyan, and a display of orchids, set around an artificial waterfall. Heating costs prevent zoo gardeners from growing all the tropical species they would dearly like to grow in this building, but the effect is impressive nonetheless. Free flying birds occupy the building, and these include weaver birds whose intricately woven nests hang pendulously from the high palms. Dwarf crocodiles and Johnson river crocodiles and Mississippi alligators occupy steamy pools. The rest of the reptile collection is huge, in splendidly landscaped vivaria along one wall of the open hall, and down one side of a long, dimly lit, corridor. Chester is one of the few zoos that takes the breeding of reptiles seriously, and there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes. One species that bred in 1990 were sunbeam snakes, a scarcely known species from South East Asia. This may have been the first ever zoo breeding of this snake, but since it is a burrowing species it is not even displayed. The zoo holds a record for breeding endangered Madagascan tree boas, has been successful with amphibians, like the red-eyed tree frog from South America, and regularly breeds a long list of snakes, lizards, tortoises and amphibians. There are some huge pythons, boas, and anacondas, a host of venomous rattlesnakes, vipers, and matnbas, and lizards large and small.

The western end of the zoo is largely devoted to paddock animals. A beautiful herd of Pere David's deer graze here, and there are Przewalski's horses, eland, black buck, and gnus, along with many others including onagers, ostrich which breed here, wallabies and axis deer, and a spectacular herd of reindeer on a rocky hardstanding. There are some huge American bison, llamas, alpacas, and guanacos, but perhaps the most delightful grazers are the charming little prairie marmots, rabbit-sized social rodents from North America. A colony of around two hundred of them occupy a network of burrows that have spread from one paddock, underneath the tarmac pathway, to reappear in another.

Also at the western end of the zoo is a new and spectacular nocturnal bat house, featuring the 'rarest bat in the world', the endangered but beautiful Rodrigues fruit bat. The bats fly free, and visitors are welcome to walk among them. A keeper is permanently on hand in case of panic attacks (which apparently do happen from time to time). But steel yourself. You can spend a long time in here with the bats swooping close to your hair. There are kinkajous too in this house, bushbabies, and little shambling echidnas – spiny relatives of the duck-billed platypus from Australia.

Nearby is the monkey house, another grand building, planted indoors with high bougainvillea, and featuring several species of monkeys in glass-fronted cages. The house has been recently renovated, and the small indoor cages have been parged into a small number of generous roomy enclosures leading to excellent enclosures outdoors.   There is a wonderful group of spider monkeys here, as well as endangered liontailed macaques.

Birds are very well featured at Chester with over one hundred and seventy species on display. There are thirty five members of the parrot family, many displayed in a large purpose-built parrot house, and these include a breeding group of the rarely-seen blue-eyed cockatoo. A walkthrough temperate bird-house holds a wide variety of species, and there are large aviaries for birds of prey, including vultures, eagles, and Andean condors which have been hatched and hand-reared here. There is also a range of rustic, but perhaps slightly inadequate aviaries for a wide variety of owls, and several waterfowl ponds and canals home to dozens of species of ducks and geese and swans.

There is so much to see and do at Chester Zoo, so many groups of animals or enclosures that deserve a mention, that it is difficult to avoid producing simply a long list of animals that should not be missed. The list would have to include the cheetah, the Siberian tigers in a large new enclosure, otters, wapiti, camels, coatis, a beautiful herd of red lechwe which are a vulnerable antelope species from Central Africa, endangered Arabian gazelles, kangaroos, Arctic foxes, capybaras, porcupines, and coypus. The list goes on, and a more thorough list can be found at the end of this book. There is a large and rather old-fashioned aquarium that has recently been extensively renovated, a small children's zoo with pygmy goats and pigs, a simple children's play-ground, and a leisurely canal boat ride.

There are no fairground attractions to detract from the experience of visiting the animals, but 1991 saw the opening of a spectacular monorail which carries visitors aloft over several of the paddocks. It is a generous ride, covering a fair portion of the zoo. A recorded commentary provides information on the animals beneath. For a zoo of Chester's size, with so much required walking, the monorail, and the canal boat ride, are a welcome diversion, and a less taxing way of seeing some of the far flung corners of the zoo. As an educational zoo, Chester has a head start because of the sheer size and breadth of its collection. But education does play an important part in the life of the zoo, and there is both a full time education officer, and a teaching staff to cope with the huge annual influx of school parties. The signs around the zoo are attractive copies of watercolour paintings by wildlife artist G. L. Grandy, commissioned especially for Chester Zoo, but now marketed widely to other zoos in Britain and overseas. They provide a comfortable, consistent and informative style of labelling on every one of the thousand or more enclosures around the zoo.

Chester Zoo once claimed to attract more Britons through its gates than any other zoo. American authoress Emily Hahn who visited most of the world's major zoos, agreed that Chester Zoo has an appeal that is difficult to explain. 'If 1 am asked why Chester is my favourite,' she wrote in her book 'Zoos', 'I can only say that it is the prettiest zoo I ever saw.' Pretty, it undoubtedly is. The gardens are laid out in a very traditional, almost nineteenth-century fashion. Every year the borders are planted with hundreds of thousands of spring and summer bedding plants, and every summer the zoo shows tens of thousands of roses, their varieties all carefully labelled. The gardens are crisscrossed with waterways (water is a prominent feature of this zoo), and in the spring many of the canal banks and islands bloom with a Wordsworthian throng of daffodils. Every animal house seems to be bedecked with flowering plants, and there are flower beds around almost every corner.

Not everything in the garden is rosy however. Here and there are signs that parts of the zoo are becoming a little old, or rather overdue for improvement. Maintaining a huge zoo like Chester is an enormous logistical operation, and as visitor numbers have fallen since the mid 1960s, so the zoo has had difficulties in maintaining its essential fabric. The camel house, many of the aviaries and the old bear pits are all overdue for rebuilding or demolition. Nonetheless, the fact that the zoo has survived the turbulent decades of the seventies and eighties, with such a huge and diverse collection of animals, is a tribute to the two hundred staff and to the management of the zoo. In the decade and a half since Mottershead's death, they have taken his vision and carried it successfully through into the 1990's. Visitor numbers have risen somewhat in recent years, and this is excellent news for the zoo and for its visitors who will benefit from the further improvements that this will enable the zoo to afford. With continued firm and enlightened direction, Chester Zoo should be able to sustain its position as a first class zoo, and as one of Britain's finest.


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