Zoo Tails

by Oliver Graham-Jones

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London Zoo 1837

London Zoo Guide 1964

London Zoo Guide 1960's

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CAESAR TO JERSEY

Caesarean sections these days are commonplace when difficulties emerge that prevent the offspring being delivered naturally. The only difference in the Caesar I am talking about is that it was on a lioness.

The zoological world produces a lot of interesting people, quite a few eccentrics, a lot of scientists and some extremely good friends. One of the best friends I had was the late Gerald Durrell, the remarkable scientific eccentric who founded the Jersey Zoological Society and Trust. This remarkable man created what is probably one of the finest small zoos in the world, with one objective in view: conservation. He even repopulated an island, by replacing species that had long ago been decimated, to prove that it could be done.

At the time, I was living in a house in London, a few minutes away from the zoo. It was a Saturday morning, and I was busy in the garden pruning my roses when the telephone pealed. As I picked up the phone a voice said:

'Oliver, you are coming to Jersey. A car will collect you within half an hour; your ticket awaits you at the airport.'

I recognized Gerald's voice and was a bit petulant because I had no idea what was going on.

'What on earth do you mean, Gerry? I'm busy pruning my roses; I have no intention of coming to Jersey.'

'A car will be with you in about twenty-five minutes. Your ticket is at the airport and you must come immediately. We have a serious problem.'

It turned out that one of his lionesses had been attempting to have cubs for two or three days and had gone to ground in her lair underneath the central island of the lion exhibition, a lair which subsequently proved to be large enough for a lion to walk into, but not tall enough for a man. If a man wanted to go in he had to crawl.

Sure enough, a hire car called for me and took me down to the zoo's hospital, where I collected all the apparatus I would require for a Caesarean. I also picked up the flying syringe, suitable drugs and special endotracheal tubes for that sized beast - these are tubes that go down the animal's windpipe and connect him directly to the gas anesthetic apparatus. For windpipes the size of lions, giraffes or larger mammals, special enlarged tubes have to be made.

When I got to Customs at the airport with my luggage, I declared the fact that I had a weapon with me; this caused a mild furore and a rush of customs officials. I explained very carefully that it was a medical gun which fired darts containing drugs in order to anesthetize animals. This was met with stony glares from all the officials; I'm sure they thought I was a terrorist about to blow up an aircraft. In the end, I was informed that the only way the weapon could go to Jersey with me was if it travelled in the pilot's cabin under his personal supervision. I readily agreed.

It originally took a long time to get the weapon into England from America because it sat in Customs for nearly 18 months. The reason for this was that it was classified as a guided missile, which had a military overtone. No matter how I tried, I couldn't persuade the Foreign Office that it wasn't a guided missile but a medical instrument.

We boarded the aircraft and set off - the baggage in the baggage locker and the capture pistol with the pilot. Arrival at Jersey airport caused some sensation; the press had already been alerted and a fair crowd was there. I waited in the customs hall to get my baggage, which came through quite quickly but... no pistol. They had forgotten to put the weapon in the pilot's charge and the aeroplane had taken off without it.

There were frantic phone calls to London airport and a special aircraft was chartered to deliver the weapon. I explained, very vocally, that my presence on the island was valueless to the lioness in question without that particular weapon. I did offer the alternative to the customs officials - they could come and drag the lioness out for me if they wished, but I would prefer to do it my way. They agreed.

Meanwhile, I drove to the zoo and surveyed the site. It was going to have to be an open-air operation because, at that stage of the development, the zoo didn't have its own veterinary quarters, as it does now.

The lion enclosure was a big open site with a central island constructed of large slabs of rock overlaying each other with tufts of turf and so forth. The slabs were so arranged that there was a lair underneath, into which the lions could go to get out of view if they wanted to be private.

Standing on the outside of the paddock, Gerald Durrell told me that the lioness was on her own in her lair and that she'd been there for some time. They were extremely worried because she hadn't come out with her cubs. The other occupants of the paddock had been separated and put somewhere else in the meantime.

I arranged for two catering department tables to be put inside the paddock once we had got the lioness out. We also ran an electric cable with a cluster of lights suspended above it, because by this time it was obvious that the whole operation was going to run into the twilight.

The next move was the frightening one. It was necessary for someone, namely me, to go into the paddock and approach the cave in order to fire an anesthetic dart into the lioness before we could get her out. Literally going into the lion's den. The only way I could feel at all secure would be to have a rope around my waist, and as I walked across the paddock to the mouth of the den carrying my pistol, they would pay it out; If there was any trouble, it was my fervent hope that they would pull quickly enough to get me out of the den before the lioness caught me.

I went into the paddock, feeling none too confident, and slowly walked towards the mouth of the cave. The closer I got, the louder the snarling sounded.

When I got to the entrance I lay down and peered inside, but I could see nothing except two golden head-lamps, which flashed at me from the dark distance a few yards away. Here was my lioness. I couldn't see her body at all in the total darkness. My only clues were the two golden eyes staring through the darkness at me in a threatening fashion. I lay quivering in my horizontal position, trying to aim my dart pistol at an area that I supposed would be the right place to strike the animal in the bottom of her neck.

I fired. 'Phut' went the pistol. The thud of the dart landing coincided with a hateful snarl. The moment this happened I shouted, 'Pull!' to the people outside the den. I need not have worried, no movement occurred at all, and quite quickly the snarling stopped and total silence prevailed. I estimated it would be fifteen minutes before total unconsciousness occurred and it would be relatively safe for me to go back. After careful timing, I re-entered the paddock, complete with rope around my waist but with a following rope that I took with me in order to tie it to the lioness.

I got to the entrance to the cavern and all was silent and still. Sweating with fear, I inched my way into the darkness, pulling the rope with me. After what seemed to be a long time - it was probably only two minutes but it seemed like a fortnight - I felt a large furry paw with huge paws. It was the upper front leg of the lioness, who was now lying unconscious. I tied the rope around the foot of her leg and retreated from the den, instructing the assistants to pull the lioness out. She was towed out peacefully asleep and completely relaxed.

We quickly rigged up the tables in the paddock, covered them with sterile drapes and lifted the lioness onto them. I then clipped and shaved the whole of her flank and thoroughly disinfected it. In the meantime I had intubated the lioness and connected her to the gas apparatus. Anesthetic gas flowed regularly and kept her unconscious. The operation site, swabbed with iodine, was isolated with green cloths, clipped at every corner, and we wore green sterile surgical gowns.

The operation began. I opened the abdomen and pulled out the uterine horns. From one horn I took out a dead cub, followed by a second one, which had gone across the exit, thus blocking it for the rest of the litter. In the other horn I was able to take out two live cubs, which began to create and call the moment they were released and put into swaddling. My task now was simple: to sew up the wounds in the uterus, muscles and skin as quickly as possible while somebody else looked after the cubs.

The operation was going well when every midge in the whole of Jersey seemed to arrive and swarm around me, the lights, the operating table and everything else. Luckily, we were towards the end of the job. We just itched.

The lioness was taken off the anesthetic apparatus and transferred to a recovery den that had been made ready. All she had to show for the operation was an incision about eighteen inches long and about thirty or forty neatly tied sutures. The initial injections I had given her kept her deeply anesthetized for some hours, which is what we all wanted.

By ten o'clock that night I was pretty exhausted but very happy with the outcome. The two cubs were mewing and squeaking and drinking avidly from a bottle.

Gerald Durrell kindly took me out to dinner although I think I would rather have gone to bed.

I had to get up very early the next morning to catch the flight back to London, and at about half past five I went round to see the lioness, who was sitting up and looking very well. The cubs were thriving and the job seemed to have been completed. A car took me to the airport and I caught an early flight back. I arrived at my own home in London in time for lunch and that afternoon I continued pruning my roses.

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TAILPIECE

Gerald Durrell rang the next day and said, 'As a reward, we have decided to name the male cub after you, its going to be called Oliver'. Now I come to think quite a few zoo animals were given that name.

.Zoo Tails © Oliver Graham-Jones (Bantam Books, 2001)

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London Zoo 1964

.London Zoo 1964

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.Historical Pictures © The Zoological Society of London

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