Most people in Halifax have never heard of the time the zoo came to town, but it remains one of the strangest sagas in its history.
Thousands of people pass the site of the old Halifax Zoo every day when they drive on the Halifax Road to the M62, but few stop to look up at Exley Hill and remember what happened there over a century ago.
This bizarre chapter in Halifax’s history started when the zoo was founded in 1909 on the top of a small escarpment on Exley Hill by an eccentric animal collector named Alfred R McKill, who would baffle his neighbours by taking his pet camel for walks through his local village.
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In its short history, it was incredibly popular and even received a royal visit from King George V and Queen Mary in 1912.
However, the zoo was plagued by disaster from the start, with stories of animal abuse, escapes by dangerous creatures and even attacks on visitors.
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The zoo featured hundreds of animals including lions, wolves, grizzly bears, polar bears, llamas, pythons and monkeys. It even had a pelican called Billy who broke his beak and was fitting with a replacement made of tin.
But the star attraction was an elephant who was often seen being taken for exercise in nearby Salterhebble.
The elephant gained notoriety shortly after the zoo opened on July 3, when a grand parade was organised to celebrate the opening, a large band led a procession through the town, accompanied by the elephant.
Unfortunately, in the noise and excitement, the elephant became startled and charged at a crowd of people who had just disembarked from a tram. As the crowd scrambled to avoid the terrifying beast, the elephant stumbled, fell, and calmed down from its rage.
The second escape attempt came later in the zoo’s chequered history, as large crowd gathered around the animal pens and began to cruelly tease a boar, which was imprisoned only by a three-foot high fence.
Angered by the teasing, the boar leapt free and attacked a woman, mauling her with its tusks.
Reportedly, she attempted to drive the boar off with an umbrella, before a man managed to grab hold of the animal and control it until the handlers arrived.
A while later, the elephant recognised the man and charged at him, chasing him screaming into a corner.
It’s no surprise that the animals were bad-tempered, as the elephant was often beaten with a ‘stout-stick’ when it became overly excited.
It seems that cruelty was an unfortunate part of the zoo’s story, with reports that the black Canadian bear was seen angrily rolling around in the wooden travelling cage which was used to transport it from the train station to the zoo’s grounds.
Visitors to the zoo also developed a terrible habit of prodding the animals with umbrellas through gaps in the iron bars, and even took to inserting pins in the tips in order to inflict more pain.
The problem became so rife that the zoo’s chairman, C. F. Spencer had to issue a public plea, begging people to stop poking the animals.
The last, and most dramatic, escape came in 1913, when a large grizzly bear and a Russian bear escaped from their confinement.
The Russian bear was quickly caught, but the grizzly bear escaped the grounds of the zoo and ran into nearby Exley woods, sending bystanders fleeing to find safety.
Stanley Hinds, the head keeper and world-famous lion tamer known as Cardono, chased and twice tried to lasso the rampaging bear without success. The bear tore Hind’s coat, waistcoat, and trousers to shreds as the lion tamer attempted to subdue it.
After almost two hours, handlers constructed a trap which snared the bear, and, half-naked, Hinds was able to wrestle the animal and brought it under control.
In a typical Yorkshire fashion, when asked about the attempts to recover the bear by a reporter, Hinds simply replied: “We had a job with it.”
Bizarrely, the zoo’s unfortunate escape attempts weren’t the first time that Halifax was terrorised by rampaging animals.
According to “It Happened Here”, a fascinating history of Halifax by Arthur Porritt, in 1858 a bear was brought to Halifax to dance in front of a large audience. Instead of dancing, it bolted free, and was chased by a large crowd, including butchers with cleavers, who were able to safely bring the bear under control.
Years later, in 1893, a full-grown lion was brought in front of a large crowd at a fair. A lion-tamer, attempting to put on a show, was pounced by the lion, who escaped through the still-open door.
The giant cat attacked the audience, sending people flying and causing injuries. One man had his face clawed and his leg was wounded as he tried to escape. Another suffered a fractured skull and dislocated jaw when the lion launched him at a nearby prop.
When the lion tamer attempted to bring the cat under control, he too was clawed and almost bitten.
Eventually, the lion became so exhausted that he passed out and was subdued. Tragically, even after what happened, the lion was still forced to perform the following day.
As for the zoo, it was finally closed in 1916. Not due to the numerous escapes, or danger it posed to the public, but due to pressures from the First World War.
Struggling to source enough food for the animals, and with audiences dwindling, the zoo was sold off.
Nothing remains of the zoo now. The site is occupied by a housing estate called Chevinedge Crescent, and no evidence of the zoo’s buildings still exist. But at least there’s no danger of escaping bears.
Research for this story was made possible by the fantastic staff at Halifax Library.
You can read more about the zoo in “The Halifax Zoo and Amusement Park” by Harry Armitage, and “It Happened Here”, by Arthur Porritt.