I can vividly remember going as a schoolboy to the Madras Zoo, then located at the People’s Park (behind the Victoria Public Hall (VPH), and the now defunct Moore Market (MM). Besides the caged animals, the lake, now with row boats plying, always excited me. I remember that the zoo had two entrances: one on Sydenham’s Road (now Raja Muthiah Road) and the other on the VPH-MM side.
Responsible for the founding of the Madras Zoo was Edward Green Balfour, who founded the Madras Museum in 1851-52. Balfour was the officer-incharge of the Museum until Edgar Thurston took over as Superintendent in 1885. During Balfour’s management of the Museum, after shifting to the Pantheon Road location in 1854, he experimented with keeping live animals (a tiger cub, a leopard) on display in the Museum gardens. Balfour found that the number of visitors to the museum rose significantly when live animals were on display; he cross-verified his findings by controlling the variables. As a talented researcher, Balfour skilfully used valid statistical tools to arrive at meaningful results. This finding prompted Balfour to convince the Government on the need of a zoological garden in Madras. The Balfour study is also considered the first scientific study of zoo visitors in the whole world.
Balfour then got down to setting up a “small zoo” in the Madras Museum compound. Because he was also the political agent for the Nawab of the Carnatic, he could successfully prevail on the generosity of the Nawab to donate his live animal collection to the new Madras Zoo, that was to develop at the People’s Park location. Point to note here is that the Calcutta Zoo (the Alipore Zoological Gardens) started functioning in 1878.
In 1876, the Madras Zoo was formally referred as the Municipal Zoological Garden. It was free to general public to visit and existed on about 120 acres. Some of the animals that were on exhibit at the time were a large, dark male orangutan, a female two-horned rhinoceros, a male Malayan tapir, and two great black-headed gulls.
Madras Museum continued to exhibit live animals following Balfour experiments. Live gerbils, owls, pigeons, jungle fowls, tortoises, and lizards, snakes, fishes, and scorpions were on display in the Museum building in 1876. Fifty-four species of fishes were displayed in 1876, which amazed professionals visiting from England. According to Col. S.S. Flower, visiting India in 1876, the range of fishes displayed in Madras was greater than what was held in most of the European aquaria; only the Amsterdam and Frankfurt aquaria had a fish variety greater than that displayed in Madras.
An exclusive Madras aquarium was initiated in October 1909, the first of its kind in the entire country. The key objective of the Madras aquarium was to promote a scientific study of fishes and other marine organisms prevalent along the Madras coast. A few cages of animals were also maintained by the State Forest Department in Guindy Children’s Park (behind Gandhi Mandapam) from the 1970s.
The P. Subbaroyan government gifted Nellikuthra – a female elephant – to the Wellington Zoological Garden (WZG), New Zealand, in 1927. Nellikuthra was the first Asian elephant in Australasia, and the WZG website claims that Nellikuthra, along with three other female Asian elephants (Maharani, Nirvana, and Kamala), entertained New Zealanders for long.
Several documents refer to Madras Zoo as the first of its kind in the Indian subcontinent. However, the zoo historian Sally Walker (in Zoo and aquarium history: ancient animal collections to zoological gardens, 2001, CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida) indicates that the animal collection donated by the Nawab of the Carnatic in response to Balfour’s request should be considered the first of its kind in India. Whatever it be, all of it happened in Madras and that is what should add to our pride in the city.