Madras had a long tradition of exhibiting animals and boasted of a choicely-kept menagerie from the Nawab times. The zoos were seen later as the symbol of British Empire’s economic power as it built a global empire.
The earliest public zoos was established within the Egmore museum premises giving rise to the term ‘uyir college’ and ‘setha college’ (the live and the dead colleges). Once the zoo moved to People’s park, it expanded into a delightful collection of species and easily became the finest assortment in the sub-continent.
But then the 40’s war that had engulfed all the continents crept closer to Madras. Its citizens waited with baited breath as it became clear that the Japanese could bomb them any moment.
But in the preparations for the war one unpleasant job could not be overlooked. What if a stray bomb opened up the zoological garden? What if the wild animals already hungry were let loose by an act of war? Even rumors of the animal’s gate crashing the zoo would set the nerves of the citizens on a high strung mode. It was not a problem exclusive to Madras.
On September 29, 1938 the Times in London ran an article detailing the “elaborate precautions” the London Zoo had enacted in the event of war“Should any large animals escape as a result of damage to their cages, they will be shot.””
Britain was better prepared. At the beginning of World War II, a government pamphlet led to a massive cull of as many as 750,000 British pets in just one week .
Those cities which tried to maintain their zoos right till the end of the war inflicted great panic on its citizens. The Berlin zoo had leopards and panthers escaping after RAF bombed the campus. The animals had to be hunted street to street the next day.
The Government of Madras had given clear indications to the Corporation of the city which ran the zoo.. The animals were valuable they were not more priceless than human lives.
Frantic efforts were made to save the animals. The Mayor and commissioner spoke to zoos in Mysore, Hyderabad, Bhopal and Calcutta. Their attempts seemed to infuse some hope into the zoo but the arena of war was too large and everybody foresaw the same issues with wild animals in urban settings and refused
Erode was willing to accept the wild animals but the railways said that it transport them only after 1942, April 16th . But the final culling order from the government to dispose off the animals came on April 11th and so the guns were loaded on the 12th. The zoo keepers must have despatched the animals with diverse feelings. Herbivores by train to Mysore and Erode by special trains and carnivores by guns.
Three lions, six lionesses, four tigers, eight leapords, four bears and a black panther were shot in the matter of an hour. Potentially this was a world record, nowhere else could so many animals have been slaughtered so short a time
The elephant not considered a potential hazard was a mute witness to the happenings in the zoo
Three Lion cubs born the week before were lucky as they had been sold to the Mysore zoo. Their parents were shot, while the cubs were purchased by Karnataka grand circus for 450 Rs. The detail was recorded by the standing committee (health) of the corporation
Two elephants, 2 giraffes, 3 zebras ,one ostrich and 6 emus and 5 baboons (The 5 baboons were rare and had to be saved at any cost) were transferred by train and truck to Erode.
The Erode municipality was to be paid 25 percent of that year’s gate collection as a compensation. Staff being transferred were to be given a hike of 10 percent. Cage coolies and the elephant guide got an additional dearness allowance of 2 Rs.
For accounting purposes, the animals shot were valued at at 4568 Rs. The tigers were considered the biggest loss being valued at 475 Rs and Lions at 282 rs, but the hurt to the zoo was much more. The impact of the war on the Madras zoo was great and a whole generation of additions were lost.
It would never again regain its splendour till it was moved to the vandalur zoo in the 80’s.