Tiger mauling and lion escape – the dramatic past of a Sunderland zoo

FEEDING TIME: Sea lion Samantha shakes hands with her keeper Denise Pickering, 18, of Red House, during feeding time at the Ocean World, Seaburn in the 1970s. Do you have any other photos, or memories, of the site?

FEEDING TIME: Sea lion Samantha shakes hands with her keeper Denise Pickering, 18, of Red House, during feeding time at the Ocean World, Seaburn in the 1970s. Do you have any other photos, or memories, of the site?

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A WEARSIDE history enthusiast is hoping to break into the world of documentary making - with the help of Echo readers.

Rob Kilburn would like to enter footage focussing on Seaburn’s Ocean Park and Zooworld during the 1970s into the newly-launched Sunderland Shorts Film Festival.

OCEAN PARK: Do you have any information or old photos of the zoo or Ocean World?

OCEAN PARK: Do you have any information or old photos of the zoo or Ocean World?

But first he needs to track down people with photographs, memories and cine film shots of the seafront tourist attractions - a task he is finding rather a struggle.

“Although the sites were open for several years, I’m having a difficult time finding information and evidence of them. They seem pretty much forgotten about,” said Rob.

“I would really appreciate it if people could search their attics of drawers for old photos, or come forward with memories. I believe it is important to remember the past like this.”

It was in the post-war years of the late 1940s that the first zoo opened at Seaburn. Initially, it formed part of a visiting circus, but by 1950 the tourist spot boasted its own miniature zoo.

Lions, Flemish giant rabbits, Brunas the baby bear and Sam - a tame fox who escaped when the zoo was broken into in May 1950 - were among the early exhibits to excite visitors. But, over the years, the zoo disappeared - until work on a £500,000 plan to transform part of Seaburn into “one of the biggest attractions in the North East” began in February 1973.

Two heated swimming pools, a monorail, ski slope and “continental playground” were all proposed, but the “main attraction” was to be a dolphinarium called Seaburn Seaworld.

“Visitors will also be able to see crocodiles, sea lions, pelicans, penguins and otters,” promised leaseholder Patrick Collins, chairman of P and J Entertainment Ltd, in the Echo.

But, although the dolphinarium, ski slope and playground went ahead, the monorail was never built.

In its place, however, a new zoo sprang up to become part of the attraction.

Coypu Rats, Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs, a lion cub called Peter, several monkeys, a brown bear known as Matilda and a male lion - who once escaped - were among the menagerie.

“Although the Collin family originally ran the dolphinarium and the zoo, I believe they were taken over by Martin Lacey in about 1976 - who ran the Great British Circus,” said Rob.

“There were two parts to the zoo - one being Ocean Park, which had dolphins borrowed from another aqua life park in Newcastle, and the other being the zoo with all the animals.

“At one point a Bengal tigress cub called Meena was kept in a disused swimming pool there - which was too deep for her to jump out of. Sadly, she mauled a teenager there in 1978.”

The zoo was battling closure at the time of the mauling - after Sunderland Borough Council terminated the lease on the leisure park on which it was sited - and it shut down weeks later.

Initially, zoo owner Mr Lacey feared his lions, bear and monkeys would have to be put down - until South Tyneside councillors agreed to step in and try and find them new homes.

“The termination of the Ocean Park lease had nothing to do with Mr Lacey, but it meant the end of Seaburn Zoo. It seems to have been pretty much forgotten since then,” said Rob.

“There must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of Wearsiders who visited the zoo during the 1970s - and I would love to talk to them about their memories for my documentary.

“I would also like to find out what happened to the zoo’s animals in the end, and include some old snapshots in the film as well. I think the zoo is a very interesting topic for a film.”

l Can you help Rob with his documentary? He can be contacted via email at: rob_kilburn@hotmail.com

The teenager mauled by a tiger at Seaburn Zoo

WEARSIDE teenager Janet Davidson was left needing 250 stitches and plastic surgery to wounds covering her body, neck and face after being clawed by a tiger at Seaburn Zoo.

The 13-year-old schoolgirl, of Talbot Road in Roker, was injured by Bengal tigress Meena as she helped to exercise the ten-month-old cub at the visitor attraction in August 1978.

“It was just an unfortunate set of circumstances that could not have been avoided. It was the sort of accident that could happen to me any day of my life,” said zoo owner Martin Lacey.

Janet was injured after Meena jumped and knocked her over. The cub put out her claws as she fell, clawing Janet - leaving the youngster needing immediate hospital treatment.

Her mother, Ellen, said at the time: “The doctor does not think there will be any scars. It was purely an accident. I don’t think there was anybody to blame.”

The injuries did, however, leave a scar - but Janet still developed a life-long concern for animal welfare - going on to craft a range of chocolates to help save tigers back in 2010.

“One day they asked my to hold the gate back in the tiger’s cage while the zoo owner was exercising it on a rope. The tiger was relieved to be out and it just went at me,” she later revealed.

“I can still see the scars today. Animals like tigers should be in the wild, not in pens or cages.

“Things were very different back then and I used to go to help in the school holidays.”

•A lion escaped from Seaburn’s Zooworld in 1977, seeking refuse in a nearby field before being drugged with darts, bundled into a police van and taken back to the complex.