Chester Zoo

Chester Zoo is a zoological garden located in Cheshire in north west England. It was opened in 1931 by George Mottershead and his family, who used as a basis some animals reported to have come from an earlier zoo in Shavington. It is the one of the UK's largest zoos at . The zoo has a total land holding of approximately .

Chester Zoo is currently operated by the North of England Zoological Society, a registered charity founded in 1934. The Zoo receives no government funding. It is the most-visited wildlife attraction in Britain with more than 1.3 million visitors in 2007. In the same year Forbes described it as one of the best fifteen zoos in the world.


Early history

The Mottershead family's market garden business was based in Shavington near Crewe. George Mottershead collected animals such as lizards and insects that arrived with exotic plants imported by the business. A visit to Belle Vue Zoo in Manchester as a boy in 1903 fuelled his developing interest in creating a zoo of his own.

Mottershead was wounded in World War I and spent several years in a wheelchair. Despite this, his collection of animals grew and he began to search for a suitable home for his zoo. He chose Oakfield House in Upton, a suburb of Chester, which he purchased for £3,500 in 1930. The house had nine acres of gardens and provided easy access to the railways and to Manchester and Liverpool. There were local objections, but Mottershead prevailed, and Chester Zoo opened to the public on 10 June 1931.. The first animals were displayed in pens in the courtyard.

Rapid expansion followed after World War II, despite the difficulty of sourcing materials. Mottershead had to be resourceful; the polar bear exhibit (1950) was built from recycled wartime road blocks and pill boxes. "Always building" was the Zoo's slogan at the time. Mottershead received the OBE, an honorary degree of MSc, and served as President of the International Union of Zoo Directors. He died in 1978 aged 84.

Zoo design

Mottershead wanted to build a zoo without the traditional Victorian iron bars to cage the animals. He was influenced by the ideas of Carl Hagenbeck, who invented the modern zoo concept and by Heine Hediger, a pioneer of ethology.

At Chester, Mottershead took Hagenback's idea for moats and ditches as an alternative to cage bars, and extended their use throughout the zoo, often with species that Hagenback had not considered. For example, when chimpanzees were released into their new enclosure at Chester in 1956, a group of grassy islands separated the apes from visitors by no more than a four-yard (3.6 m) strip of water. Nobody knew then if chimps could swim. It turned out that they could not, and today the chimp islands are a centrepiece of Chester Zoo.

In 1986 the Zoo was enclosed with a fence, in line with the Zoo Licensing Act 1981.

Management structure

The Zoo is split into three separate directorates under the management of the Director General, Gordon McGregor Reid:

  • Conservation and Education
  • Corporate Services
  • Commercial Services

Layout and facilities

The Zoo is bisected by a public bridleway, Flag Lane. For many years, a single bridge (now called Elephant's Bridge), drivable by zoo vehicles and powered wheelchairs, near the elephant exhibit was the only crossing place within the grounds. A second crossing, passable by pedestrians only, called Bat's Bridge, opened in April 2008 near the Twilight Zone, has improved the ability of visitors to circulate.

There are other ways to travel around the zoo:

  • A monorail transportation system called the Zoofari Railway, with a station near the elephants and a station near the lions.
  • A water bus operates on a canal network within the Zoo in peak season, but it stops at only one place.

Visitors must pay extra for using the monorail and the water bus.

Chester's catering facilities include the Tsavo Café near the main entrance which opened in 2006. The Ark Restaurant is in the middle of the zoo. The Oakfield Restaurant, in a Victorian mansion house near the lion enclosure, and the Acorn Bar, are both used for private functions as well as catering to zoo visitors.

There are children's play areas, shops, kiosks, and several picnic lawns around the Zoo. A second pedestrian entrance is located in the south-east corner of the Zoo behind Oakfield House.

For a long time the public entrance was at the east end. In recent years the public entrance has moved to the north side, west of Flag Lane, near the elephants, and the old car parks at the east end are being built over with service and educational buildings.

The zoo owns land outside the public area, and uses that land to grow food for its herbivorous animals.

Species and animals

Chester Zoo holds a large and diverse collection. At the end of 2007, over half the species at the zoo appeared on the IUCN Red List and 155 were classified as threatened species. 134 species were kept as part of a managed captive breeding programme. The zoo manages the studbooks for Congo buffalo, jaguar, blue-eyed cockatoo, Madagscan tree boa, gemsbok (all ESB species), black rhinoceros, Ecuadorian amazon parrot, Mindanao writhe-billed hornbill and Rodrigues fruit bat (all EEP species). In addition, Chester holds 265 threatened plant species.

Group Number of species Number of animals
Mammals 79 1864
Birds 155 1138
Reptiles 52 230
Amphibians 24 577
Fish 80 3829
Invertebrates 32 1381+
Total 422 9019+

Animal exhibits

Elephants of the Asian Forest

Chester was the first zoo in the UK to successfully breed Asian elephants in captivity. The most famous of these was Jubilee (1977-2003), so named as he was born in 1977, the year of the Queen's Silver Jubilee. The Zoo has a breeding herd of ten elephants, including three calves: Tunga (male, born 2004), Sundara (female, born 2004) and Raman (male, born 2006). An adult female, Birma, joined the herd in 2006. The elephant house also used to house African elephants, rhinos, hippos and tapirs. Motty, a hybrid African-Asian elephant calf, was born the next year but died in infancy.

A GBP2 million breeding facility modelled on an Assam (India) rainforest called Elephants of the Asian Forest opened at Easter 2006, as a major alteration of the zoo's previous elephant house. In the elephant house other indigenous species are exhibited, including great Indian hornbills, azure-winged magpies, green peafowl, red billed blue magpie, red junglefowl, Prevost's squirrels, red-bellied squirrels, spiny turtles, and northern tree shrews. There is an aquarium for Pla Eesok, Pig-nosed turtles, Clown loach and Asian arowana fish.

Spirit of the Jaguar

Spirit of the Jaguar was opened in 2001 and is sponsored by Jaguar cars. The exhibit is split into four sections. The two inside are modelled on a rainforest and a dry savannah, and the two outside contain rivers and pools so that the cats can exercise their swimming skills. There are currently five jaguars, four spotted and one melanistic. A male and female named Salvador and Sophia had cubs in 2005 that died soon after birth. As well as jaguars, the exhibit also contains a colony of leaf-cutter ants, poison arrow frogs, emerald tree boas and numerous rainforest fish including butterfly goodeid.

Realm of the Red Ape

Realm of the Red Ape is a GBP3.5 million extension to the existing orangutan house, home to Bornean and Sumatran orangutans, and is the most expensive capital project in the Zoo's history. The exhibit opened to the public on 26 May 2007 after a two-year construction period. It comprises a new two-story building linked to the existing orangutan house with three indoor and two outdoor enclosures, providing accommodation for a larger number of apes. The outdoor areas can be viewed from a first floor public gallery and feature mesh roofs supported by tree-like structures which act as climbing frames for the apes. A further enclosure houses a group of four lar gibbons. On 29 January 2008, the Zoo celebrated the birth of new baby Sumatran orangutan.

Animals and plants from Indonesia are exhibited inside Realm of the Red Ape in a rainforest-themed setting. Birds on display include the Timor sparrow, chestnut-backed thrush, and orange-headed thrush. The crocodile monitor, reticulated python, red-tailed racer, king ratsnake, White's tree frog, emerald tree monitor and green tree python feature among the reptiles. Other creatures include surplus male tree shrews from the elephant house, giant walking sticks and leaf insects.

The Chimpanzee Breeding Centre

This pavilion was opened in 1989 by HRH the Princess of Wales and is home to 30 chimpanzees. This is the largest colony of chimps in Europe, housed in the Roundhouse, a conical indoor enclosure linked to an outside moated island. The island is planted with many bushes and has large poles for the chimps to climb on. The inside area has a climbing frame that allows the chimps to stay close together on several levels of platform. There are seven interconnected off-show dens. Dylan is the current dominant male of the Chester Zoo colony.

Tsavo Rhino Experience

The Zoo's black rhinoceros exhibit, modelled on the Tsavo national park in Kenya, was opened in 2003 at a cost of GBP2 million. The zoo has a successful rhinoceros breeding programme and currently keeps a herd of 7 animals. Meerkats are kept in a small enclosure nearby, and the surrounding paddocks are home to red lechwe, banded mongoose and warthog.

Twilight Zone

Twilight Zone is the largest free-flying bat cave in Europe. The cave holds three species of bat: Rodrigues fruit bat, Livingstone's fruit bat and Seba's short-tailed bat. It is also home to a varied collection of other species including freshwater fish, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, Turkish spiny mice, and blind cave fish.

Monkey Islands

Monkey Islands was opened in 1997, replacing the old monkey house) and is currently home to five monkey species: Colombian black spider monkeys, mandrills, lion-tailed macaques, Sulawesi crested macaques and Campbell's guenons. Porcupines were housed with the guenons and mandrills until 2001. Visitors enter the monkey house and view the animals from a central corridor. Each species has a glass-fronted indoor enclosure with climbing apparatus and an outdoor enclosure, moated and heavily planted.

Miniature Monkeys

Miniature Monkeys, opened in May 2004, consists of two enclosures. The first is home to a pair of pied tamarin and the second is shared by a family of Geoffroy's marmosets and a male black lion tamarins. The marmosets have successfully breed on several occasions. Until 2006 a male Azara's agouti was also housed here. The Zoo plans to bring in a female black lion tamarin after the previous female died.

Bears of the Cloud Forest

Bears of the Cloud Forest opened in 2004 and is home to a pair of spectacled bears and other South American animals. The purpose-built exhibit is designed to mimic the bear's natural habitat by providing trees and a rocky terrain. Sharing the bears' enclosure with them are a group of ring-tailed coatis. Nearby are paddocks housing vicuña and guanaco (wild relatives of the llama), capybara, Brazilian tapirs and common rheas.

Secret World of the Okapi

Formerly the camel house, this enclosure was remodelled in 2006 to house okapi. Initially two males were kept, but one has since left and been replaced by a female as part of a breeding programme. Other animals that can be seen here include the giant pouched rat, African dormouse, several species of cichlid from Lake Barombi Mbo in Cameroon, gaboon viper, Tanzanian grass rat, Mount Kulal spiny mouse and Mesic four-striped grass mouse.

Islands in Danger

This exhibit is primarily a herpetarium for the Zoo's Komodo dragons, originating from the Lesser Sunda Islands. It was opened in 1998 and extended in 2003 to include an outdoor enclosure used by the dragons in the warmer summer months. The exhibit is built on the site of the Zoo's former bird house. In 2007 several young baby komodo dragons were put on display after one of the zoo's two females had a virgin birth through parthenogenesis, the first such case recorded in this species.

Islands in Danger also houses various Indonesian and Philippines rainforest birds, such as red birds of paradise, Palawan peacock-pheasants, pheasant pigeons and Victoria crowned pigeons. Recently added was a small group of Mindanao bleeding-hearts which have successfully bred. Birds formally kept in the exhibit include Visayan tarictic hornbill, Socorro dove, Papuan lorikeet and St Lucia amazon.

Children's Farm and Marmot Mania

This includes a collection of domestic animals such as goats, rabbits, pigs, sheep, guinea pigs and poultry to be met and petted. The nearby Marmot Mania houses black-tailed prairie marmots, and features tunnels beneath the enclosure which allow children to crawl through, popping up their heads into plastic domes to give them a marmot's eye view of the world.

Sea Lion Beach and Penguins

The pool for California sea lions was recently re-styled Sea Lion Beach. There is now a larger beach area, more naturalistic planting and softer barriers. In the summer of 2006 a pup named Sophia was born. The exhibit currently has a single pair of sealions but hopes to acquire more in the future.

In the neighbouring enclosure a large group of breeding Humboldt penguins has their own pool, and visitors can watch the birds from an underwater viewing window.

Tropical Realm

Chester's Tropical Realm is Britain's largest tropical house at over 26,000 cubic metres. Opened in 1964, most of the interior is an open-plan space extending to roof level and themed with pools and mature tropical plants, with pathways for visitors through the undergrowth. Here, more than 30 species of birds are free-flying, including Nicobar pigeons, various species of starlings and ground birds such as roul-roul partridges.

Aviaries and vivaria are arranged around the sides of the building; those on the upper level were originally designed for birds of paradise. The aviaries currently house birds such as the great Indian hornbill, rhinoceros hornbill, two pairs of tarictic hornbill (one pure-bred and one hybrid), writhed-billed hornbill, wrinkled hornbill, red-crested turaco, Palawan peacock-pheasant, Congo peafowl, Bali starling, blue crowned pigeon, white-rumped shama, Montserrat oriole and red-billed curassow.

The Tropical Realm is also the centre of the reptile collection. The crocodile pools are currently being renovated to house Chester's new pair of Philippine crocodiles, which arrived in early 2008. Near the entrance is an enclosure for tuatara. This lizard-like species from New Zealand is the last surviving sphenodont, a prehistoric group of reptiles, and Chester is the only British zoo to exhibit them. There are also many varieties of snake; anaconda, boa constrictor, snouted cobra, rat snake, Jamaican boa and green mamba to name a few. Lizards include the rhinoceros iguanas, gila monsters and various species of monitor and gecko. Caiman lizards joined the collection in 2007.

Tortoises are represented by the Galápagos, pancake, radiated, Egyptian and yellow-footed species. There are more than ten kinds of poison dart frog and the highly unusual Puerto Rican crested toad, plus invertebrates such as the partula snail.

Europe on the Edge

This is the zoo's largest aviary, and is one of the biggest in the UK. It was opened in 1993 on the site of the former polar bear enclosure. It houses a variety of European birds, including the European black and griffon vultures and the rarer of the two European storks, the black stork. There are spoonbills, ibis and egrets as well as a selection of waterfowl. Smaller birds include the rock dove, northern lapwing, red-legged partridge and the native but rare red-billed chough.

Condor Cliffs

This aviary was constructed to rehouse the zoo's breeding pair of Andean condors, who have since parent-reared a chick for the first time. It is now also home for the American black vulture from South America and several species of waterfowl. The aviary is dominated by a large sandstone waterfall, and a fake llama skeleton is used at feeding time. The enclosure is built on the site of the Zoo's former brown bear enclosure.

Rare Parrot Breeding Centre

Parrots on display here include blue-eyed cockatoos, red-vented cockatoos, palm cockatoos, short-billed black-cockatoos, red-and-blue lories, yellow-backed chattering lories, Mount Apo lorikeets and blue-and-yellow macaws. Most of the birds were moved to the Rare Parrot Breeding Centre from the old parrot house when it was demolished in 2005 to make way for Realm of the Red Ape.

Mythical Macaws

This enclosure consists of several aviaries housing rare and endangered South American parrots and macaws. These include the hyacinth macaw, blue-winged macaw, blue-throated macaw, golden conure, golden-capped conure, blue-throated conure, red-crowned amazon and red-tailed amazon. The first aviary was opened in 2001 and the remainder in 2004. A breeding pair of Azara's agouti also form part of the exhibit.


The aquarium is a small and traditional building (one of the oldest at the zoo, built by George Mottershead's daughter and son-in-law in the 1950s) housing a varied collection of freshwater and marine fish, aquatic invertebrates and amphibians. It has had notable success breeding seahorses and achieved the first captive breeding of the freshwater motoro stingray.

Other notable fish include the electric eel, African lungfish, tropical reef fishes and various Lake Malawi cichlids. Amphibians include the Surinam toad, Japanese fire belly newt and axolotl.

Asian Plains and paddocks

In 2008, Asian Plains received its official opening. Based around a mixed-species paddock featuring blackbuck and Burmese brow-antlered deer, the exhibit has recently been extended to include new enclosures for Indian rhinoceros and cheetah. The male rhino was joined by a female in 2008 to form a pair which the Zoo hopes will breed. The paddocks formerly housed barasingha, Ankole cattle and sitatunga.

Other paddocks on the west side of the zoo support grazing herds of Grevy's zebra, sitatunga, scimitar-horned oryx, gemsbok, Pere David's deer and Przewalski's horse. The sitatunga share their paddock with ostrich. Australian fauna is represented by emus and red-necked wallabies in a mixed exhibit.

Forest Zone

The north east area of the Zoo is where many forest-dwelling species are kept. As well as the chimpanzees, okapi, jaguar and Tropical Realm, there are enclosures for Congo buffalo, red river hogs and endangered Negros Island warty pigs. Nearby is a large paddock for the Zoo's six giraffes. Buffy-headed capuchins are housed near the exit of the Tropical Realm as well as a group of native sand lizards. The main coati group is found here as is an empty enclosure formerly housing maned wolves.

Lions and tigers

As well as jaguars, Chester keeps lions, tigers and cheetahs in its big cat collection. The lions are the Asiatic subspecies found only in the Gir Forest in India in the wild. The Zoo's resident male Asoka was joined by a female, Asha, from Rome in 2006. The pair have bred on two occasions, but so far their only offspring to survive has been a male cub, Tejas, born and hand-reared in 2007. His upbringing was featured prominently in the first series of Zoo Days. Tejas left Chester Zoo early in 2008 as part of the European breeding programme for this subspecies.

In 2007, a male Sumatran tiger called Kepala arrived from Dudley Zoo to join the two resident female Bengal tigers. The Zoo hopes to acquire a female to form a breeding pair of Sumatrans, a critically endangered subspecies in the wild.

Other exhibits

Other animals exhibited at Chester Zoo include Bactrian camel and onager in a large paddock in the centre of the zoo, formerly the zebra exhibit. An off-show paddock only visible from the monorail holds a group of Philippine spotted deer.

Bordering the paddocks is a waterway running north-south along which the water bus travels, past island groups of Black-and-white ruffed lemurs, Alaotran gentle lemurs, red ruffed lemurs and a pair of lowland anoas. Cottontop tamarins were formerly housed on the gentle lemur island.

In the south-east corner of the Zoo are enclosures housing an assortment of animals including bongos, Chilean pudú, bush dogs, red pandas, Asian small-clawed otters, western grey kangaroos, southern cassowaries red-crowned cranes, golden pheasant and an empty enclosure by the kangaroo paddock which over the years has provided home to a variety of animals including mongooses, bush dogs and bears.

Near the Rare Parrot Breeding Centre is an aviary currently housing spectacled owls and formerly home to macaws and keas. A variety of bird species such as Derbyan parakeets, kookaburras and the Zoo’s owl collection are seen nearby. The owl aviaries were recently modified.

Aviaries for snowy owls, rhinoceros hornbills and Mauritius kestrels are located behind the Children's Fun Ark. Flocks of Chilean and Caribbean flamingos live in shallow water alongside a large island housing a group of ring-tailed lemurs. New indoor accommodation for the flamingos was completed in 2007. Pelicans, storks, cranes and a variety of waterfowl are housed in large pens alongside Tsavo.

Future developments

During 2008, the Zoo will be drawing up a masterplan for its long-term development under the title "Natural Vision". Detailed design of the first phase of development is expected to start in 2009. The masterplan was previously known as the "Super Zoo" project, a GBP100 million plan for expanding the visitor attraction to three or four times its current size.

Realm of the Red Ape (expansion of the orangutan exhibit, opened May 2007) and Beginnings (redevelopment of the main entrance, opened Easter 2007) both form part of the "Natural Vision" project.

During 2008, Chester has been carrying out a series of small-scale developments. Exhibits for cheetah and Philippine crocodiles are now completed and later in the year, work is due to begin on a mixed aviary for African bird species and Butterfly Journey, a walk-through exhibit of tropical butterflies. Further in the future are plans for a new Aquatic Research and Conservation Centre (ARC) to replace the ageing aquarium building and a Small Mammal Breeding Centre.

Membership and adoption

The Zoo has a scheme whereby people can adopt an animal of their choice, they are also given two complimentary tickets to allow them to visit the animals. They can also become members which allows them to visit Chester and a range of other zoos across England free of charge for a year. Every three months, members and adopters receive Z magazine, which provides updates and information about what is happening at the Zoo.

Television documentary

During summer 2007, television crews from Granada filmed at Chester for the documentary series Zoo Days, a behind the scenes look at the day-to-day running of the Zoo, narrated by Jane Horrocks. UK broadcast rights were sold to Five and the first 20-part series began airing on UK terrestrial TV on 8 October 2007, transmitting on weekday evenings in a regular 6:30pm slot. A second 20-part series of Zoo Days was swiftly commissioned and began airing on 3 March 2008.. The third 20-part series was broadcast from Colchester Zoo, before returning to Chester for the fourth 20-part series on September 29th 2008.



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