Today it may have shifted to a sprawling, verdant and much deserved campus in Vandalur and may be called the Arignar Anna Zoological Park but, for at least three generations, the Madras Zoo was behind the Ripon Building, occupying one end of the 116-acre People’s Park.
The Zoo, of course, is older than that; it is, in fact, the oldest zoo in the country. It was begun thanks to Edward Green Balfour, Director of the Government Museum, Madras, who in 1854 persuaded the Nawab of Arcot to hand over his menagerie to the Museum. The Zoo was founded officially a year later in the Museum premises. Its specimens expanded to 300 in number within a year. In 1863, the Zoo was shifted to People’s Park, where it was to remain for almost 125 years. Together with the Lily Pond, My Ladye’s Garden, Moore Market and VP Hall, it helped to make Park Town a tourist attraction.
Not that it lacked some gory history as well. In 1942, following the fears of bombardment of Madras, the city was evacuated. All the dangerous animals of the zoo were shot dead. The harmless ones were taken to Erode and brought back to the city in 1944. Another gruesome record was that for years the stray dogs of Madras were rounded up by the Corporation, killed, and the meat used to be given to the carnivores in the zoo! This was given up only in the 1970s following protests by animal lovers when the sterilisation rather than the culling of strays was adopted.
Located as it was in just 11 acres of land, the zoo began to get congested even in the 1940s. Around the time of Independence, Governor Sir Archibald Nye offered around 100 acres of the Guindy Raj Bhavan Estate for the zoo. While this eventually developed as the Guindy Park, the zoo stayed put. Nye’s successor, Krishnakumarsinhji Bhavsinhji, the Maharajah of Bhavnagar, was an animal lover and it was thanks to him that the zoo got several specimens, including lions, tigers and macaws. The centenary of the zoo was celebrated with éclat in 1955 with a special souvenir and a new entrance in art deco style – the Darwin Gate, which is seen in today’s picture.
Right through the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, the zoo was a favourite cinema setting. Perhaps its best representation was in the otherwise poor film Kakkum Karangal (1965) where the entire song ‘Alli thandu kaal eduttu’ was set in the zoo. A decade earlier, the American film director Ellis R. Dungan did a whole photo feature of the zoo for the Corporation.
In 1976, with increasing traffic noise, and the demand for People’s Park land for other services, the zoo had to shift. The Forest Department generously gave 1265 acres of land in the Vandalur Reserve Forest. Work began in 1979 and was completed in 1985 when, on July 24, the then Chief Minister M. G. Ramachandran declared the zoo open in its new location and named it after his mentor C.N. Annadurai.
With a further 230 acres land being added to it subsequently, the zoo is one of the largest in Southeast Asia and is a great attraction in the city.
You may want to read about other lost/vanishing/surviving landmarks