Review: Our Zoo by June Mottershead (4/5)

Thursday 9 October 2014
A wonderfully nostalgic memoir detailing the fascinating lives of the working class family behind the phenomenally successful Chester Zoo.

When George Mottershead moved to the village of Upton-by-Chester in 1930 to realise his dream of opening a zoo without bars, his four-year-old daughter June had no idea how extraordinary her life would become. Soon her best friend was a chimpanzee called Mary, lion cubs and parrots were vying for her attention in the kitchen, and finding a bear tucked up in bed was no more unusual than talking to a tapir about granny's lemon curd. Pelican, penguin or polar bear - for June, they were simply family.

The early years were not without their obstacles for the Mottersheads. They were shunned by the local community, bankruptcy threatened and then World War Two began. Nightly bombing raids turned the dream into a nightmare and finding food for the animals became a constant challenge. Yet George's resilience, resourcefulness and tenacity eventually paid off. Now over 80 years since June first set foot in the echoing house, Chester Zoo has achieved worldwide renown.

Here, in her enthralling memoir, June Mottershead chronicles the heartbreak, the humour, the trials and triumphs, above all the characters, both human and animal, who shaped her childhood.

Having visited Chester Zoo many times over the years I was intrigued by this book when I saw it on bookbridgr. It was a very exciting, insightful read that I very much enjoyed. June Mottershead has lived a very eventful life that, reading it, makes your own childhood seem a bit boring in comparison. I'm sure children imagine roaming around a zoo after hours, but the idea of one actually being your home where the animals are your friends and family is hard to imagine.

There's a magical feel to the story at times. Reading June's story is like when your grandparents told you stories as a child growing up. That feeling never goes away and I loved reading about the formation of the zoo, which almost didn't come to fruition as it faced many problems from the very beginning. June's father George first had the idea for the zoo when he visited one himself and the animals were behind bars, he felt they weren't getting the respect they deserved and so his dream of opening a zoo without bars began.

George worked endlessly and tirelessly to get the zoo up and running in the face of much adversity. Opposition from residents came in the form of a petition, and there were false rumours saying that it would be like many of the zoos at that time, that bred animals, let lions and tigers roam free and train them for circuses. Yet what George wanted to create was a zoo that would benefit animals, giving them a place where they could thrive and be happy. The emphasis would be on education which given how many schools visit the zoo today has surely been achieved.

It wasn't therefore easy at all. It was a struggle and without the determination of George and his family the zoo might never have went on to become the success that it is today. Just when things were looking up the Second World War began bringing with it a whole host of problems for the zoo not least how the family would look after the animals, especially given how they had to take in evacuees from farms and people that couldn't look after them. With the help of adoption, a scheme that is still used by zoos and animal charities today, the family were able to manage the zoo throughout the war.

There are some truly heartwarming stories told in this book. I absolutely loved the stories of Mary the chimpanzee. The idea of a chimp being your best friend and learning from you is mad, it's like something you expect from a film not someone's life story. There are also plenty of sad stories too, especially the ones about the deaths of animals. My dog was put down when I was a child and that was heartbreaking.

I felt that the book ended quite abruptly and I would have liked a chapter or two on the future of the zoo and what it went on to become. We know what the present day zoo is like but I would have liked to see it included anyway, or some pictures at least. The ones included of June and her family are fantastic. That said I appreciate the book is about the zoo created by June's family and overall it was a hugely enjoyable read that I highly reccommend.

Thanks to Headline for the review copy via bookbridgr.

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