Page last updated at 07:51 GMT, Monday, 23 March 2009

Who gave a home to elephant Sheila?

elephant angel
Sheila spent World War II in a north Belfast back garden

The search is on for the kind guardian who adopted a baby elephant and brought her up in her back garden in north Belfast during World War II.

Sheila, the elephant, had luck on her side.

Nine lions, two tigers and a number of bears and wolves were killed on the orders of the Ministry of Public Security because of fears that if a bomb hit the site of Bellevue Zoo, they would escape and pose a threat.

But baby Sheila dodged the death list and was re-housed by a woman who lived near the zoo and kept her in a back garden.

Who was this mysterious guardian angel? Elephants might never forget... but humans do. The identity of the adoptive parent is a mystery. She was known only as "the elephant angel".

As the zoo celebrates its 75th birthday, it would like to find out more.

Bellevue is one of Belfast's most enduring landmarks, and the scene of countless school trips.

It opened to the public on 28 March, 1934 Belfast.

The previous year a "static menagerie", exhibited by animal dealer George Chapman over the summer months, had proved an instant hit.

More than 200,000 tickets were sold to see lions, tigers, bears and an elephant at Bellevue Gardens.

The traffic on the Cavehill to Whitewell tramway increased dramatically with the Corporation collecting a 375 profit.

With their eyes on a profitable venture, Belfast Corporation joined forces with Mr Chapman and 12 acres of the gardens were turned into a zoo.

In its first year, the City of Belfast Zoological Garden, as it was officially known, received 287,307 visitors. On the roll call in 1934 were tigers, lions, leopards, bears, elephants, a llama and baboons.

Upon its opening the Irish News reported that the zoo on its "extensive scale, amid beautiful surroundings" took its place among the "best in Britain".

'Age of the cage'

As the decades passed, public perception on how animals should be kept and housed changed.

What was state-of-the-art in 1934 was now seen as extremely cramped. Many dubbed it the "worst zoo in Europe".

"The age of the cage is gone. New plans mean large enclosures where the animals could roam with a reasonable amount of freedom," said Parks Director Craig Wallace in 1974.

Speaking to the News Letter in November 1977, Mary Byrne, a leading animal welfare campaigner at the time, said she "could not face a return visit".

"I once saw a bear with marks on its head where it had been repeatedly striking the bars in anger and frustration," she added.

In 1978 work began to increase the zoo in size from its original 12 acres to 40 acres and to improve conditions for the animals it housed.

The old zoo closed in 1989, although it still remains in partial use to day for storage and as a holding area for quarantined animals.

World renowned zoologist Dr Jane Goodall was on hand in 1991 to open the ape house.

The zoo continues to expand - last year the rainforest house was opened housing Rodrigues fruit bats, Linnes two-toed sloth and red-footed tortoises.

Nowadays, the zoo is part of an international breeding programme to protect endangered species. It is currently attempting to breed 94 of their 140 species.

Lily the lion
Lily the Lion cub was born at the zoo on 3 June 2007

Earlier this year it was announced the zoo was to become a "retirement home" for elderly female elephants.

Already home to 44-year-old Tina, the zoo said it was likely that some of the elephants would be from a circus background.

To celebrate its birthday the zoo will be running a series of events from 23 March to 29 March.

The new visitor centre will be opened, there will be a special birthday trail around the zoo, and visitors will be able to explore the old zoo site.

Belfast Zoo in pictures
21 Mar 09 |  In Pictures

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