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Belfast Zoo gets ready to hit the big screen

29 September 2016

Belfast Zoo gets ready to hit the big screen.

This week Belfast Zoo travelled back in time to the Blitz era, as filming took place onsite for ‘Zoo’, a new movie based on one of Northern Ireland’s most famous war-time stories.

Zoo is based on the true story of Belfast Zoo’s ‘elephant angel’. During World War II, the Ministry of Public Security issued a directive that all dangerous animals should be destroyed. This was to ensure public safety, in case the animals escaped if the zoo was damaged by German air raids. On 19 April 1941, Mr A McClean (head of the Air Raid Protection Section) enlisted the help of constable Ward, from the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and Sergeant E U Murray, of the Home Guard. A total of 33 animals were shot, including hyaena, wolves, a puma, a tiger, a black bear, polar bears, a lynx, racoons and a vulture.

During this time Sheila, a baby elephant, was protected and taken to the backyard of the North Belfast terraced home of zoo keeper, Denise Weston Austin. Here Denise comforted and cared for the young elephant as the bombs rained down upon Belfast.
When head zoo keeper, Dick Foster, left work in the evening, Denise took Sheila from her enclosure, walked her the short distance to her house at 278 Whitewell Road and walked her back up to the zoo in the morning. It seemed zoo staff did not know about this arrangement until Sheila chased a dog into a neighbour’s garden, breaking the fence. Sheila remained in the zoo after her evening activity was discovered. However, Denise’s fondness for the elephant continued and she visited Sheila in the zoo at night, during the air raids, rubbing her ears to keep her calm.

In ‘Zoo’, the story is seen through the eyes of a 12 year old boy named Tom who, with the help of his friends, tries to save ‘Buster’ the elephant.

Zoo curator, Alyn Cairns, said “the ‘elephant angel’ is such a famous character in Belfast Zoo’s history. The story has captured the hearts of people across the world and we have no doubt that the movie will continue to inspire people with this heart-warming tale. The cast and crew have been filming different scenes at the zoo and have met some of our animal family, including Qays the Barbary lion who will make his big screen debut as ‘Gilbert’, although we are hoping the fame won’t go to his head! Some scenes even took place at the old elephant house, where Sheila the elephant once lived. It has been a pleasure to see the story come to life throughout the filming and we can’t wait to see Belfast Zoo on the big screen!”

The cast and crew have visited the zoo several times in the last few weeks to film pivotal scenes of the film. Filming has also taken place across the city at Belfast Castle, city centre and the docks. .

‘Zoo’ is due to be released next year and will feature at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

Find out more about Belfast Zoo.

Belfast City & Greater Belfast News

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