- BBC World, @bbc_ciencia
June Williams was just 4 years old in 1930 when her father bought 28,000m2 of land in Cheshire, UK. Her name was George Mottershead and she had a dream: to build «a zoo without bars».
Born in 1894, Mottershead felt sorry for the caged animals at Bellevue amusement park in the city of Manchester.
When he returned from the front in the First World War, he set up a nursery and a flower shop.
And sure enough, his business flourished, especially when he began selling birds as well. So he put his own menagerie on display.
He moved his family into a home with two goats and a gibbon monkey, soon joined by two bears acquired from a wildlife park in nearby Derbyshire.
But Mottershead’s mission was fraught with difficulties from the start.
To begin with, the neighbors feared the escape of animals and were opposed.
«We hope to open for Easter, but we didn’t have permission until the summer,» recalls June, who is 88 today.
«The money was leaving very quickly because you had to pay the mortgage and feed the animals.»
Undaunted, Mottershead continued to find imaginative ways to populate his zoo with exotic creatures.
A zoo without cages
In those days, animals could be bought in big box stores.
«People were buying young specimens, and of course they would soon become unmanageable in a home,» says June.
«So they were dropped off at the zoo: monkeys and different animals.»
Although Mottershead’s ambitions proved unusual, he had a large following who gave him gifts of animals.
Among them, a chigüiro or capybara -a giant South American rodent- that the Duke of Westminster donated to him.
«Someone had given it to him as a gift. He put it on an island on his Eaton land, and it obviously swam off the island because it’s an aquatic animal, but no one had noticed at the time. And so we received it.» , account June.
In 1931, Chester Zoo finally opened its doors to the public. From the beginning, June remembers her father as a pioneer who learned from giving animals as much space as possible.
«He was very ingenious. He would put the lions behind fences made of netting. People said that this was not going to stop the lions, because all the lions were behind bars at that time. But he had the courage of his ideas.» .
Instead of building a cage to hold his chimpanzees, Mottershead dug a hole.
«When I look back at the photographs of chimpanzees behind a water moat, I realize that it took courage to leave adult chimpanzees on an island with nothing but water, because no one else had done it before.»
June inherited her empathy for animals from her father.
Growing up in a zoo, some of her best friends were exotic beasts.
Especially Christy, a lion cub that June raised until her father traded her for a polar bear, something that broke her heart.
There was also Mary the chimpanzee.
«We more or less shared our youth. We did things together. I tried to teach her how to tie a knot, but I didn’t succeed. And we drew things together in the sand. She had a wonderful character. Chimpanzees are just like humans… You have a close bond with some».
World War II marked a difficult time for the zoo. The young animals grew fast and needed new enclosures, but there were no materials to build them.
That is why the bears escaped from their temporary pens.
In addition, Chester received animals evacuated from urban zoos for fear of bombing. Thus came a bison from Dudley and a polar bear from Brighton.
A house for the elephant
The family also acquired an elephant named Molly when the circus she was traveling with was stranded in England at the outbreak of war.
Molly was received and housed in a temporary stable in the garden. As soon as the conflict was over, Mottershead built a house for her.
«It was made of road blocks that had been used during the war to stop tanks,» June tells the BBC.
«The elephant house was built very quickly, but it gave it a home. After the war, it used to get everything going again.»
Through trial and error, Mottershead’s creativity and determination kept the zoo going.
But for June, the project was also a family matter.
«My father was the beacon and he was very brave, but there had to be someone there to support him,» he says.
«Dad would go and bring animals, but my mother was their support. She would go check on the animals every afternoon to make sure they had fresh water and warm bedding,» June says.
Today, 80 years after the first goats arrived, Chester Zoo is an institution. It houses 11,000 animals on some 4,400m2 of land and prides itself on its educational, conservation and animal welfare role.
A legacy that, according to June, fits her father’s dreams: «I’m sure he would be very proud.»