One of the more intimidating experiences of my life was standing on the deck of the Polish freighter Zawiercie at the docks of Bremerhaven, Germany on the afternoon of June 8th, 1974. The city Bremerhaven is in Northwestern Germany on an estuary that connects directly into the North Sea. It is one of the largest container ports in the world and was, as I recall, a major operation in those days as well.
The Zawiercie would be my home for the next two weeks as we chugged across the North Atlantic in route to the port of Montreal. I may have been retracing the route of the Titanic, but this was no ocean cruise. I was receiving hurried and cursory instructions on how to care for my cargo of twenty animals that were being loaded on deck and secured under my watchful, though inexperienced, eye. I was no stranger to the ins and outs of cleaning cages and feeding animals, but animals in crates on the deck of a ship on the open ocean was another matter. What had I gotten myself into?
Stocking a major zoo with the thousands of animals that would be needed to fill the exhibits meant hundreds of shipments arriving in Toronto from all over the world. Animals from North America could arrive by truck while smaller animals from overseas could fly into Toronto’s international airport. But the larger animals from Europe and Asia were transported by ocean-going freighters. It was an age-old method of transport (one that is seldom used today) and one that required a caretaker for the long voyage. That is where I came in.
Fortunately, Toronto Zoo officials saw value in having me visit some European zoos while I was over there, so my journey actually began a week earlier when my flight landed in Amsterdam on the morning of June 1st, 1974. It was a whirlwind tour of six zoos in six cities, traveling on two planes, four buses, five trains, and seven taxis. And what did I learn on this tour of European zoos? Not as much as I should have. Too much of my time was spent being in awe of the whole experience.
I did learn that a zoo doesn’t need to be large to be good. The Antwerp Zoo, for example, is located in the heart of downtown, next to the train station and right on the town square. It was, according to my notes, an “excellent zoo. small & ‘comfortable’”. It had a large, impressive collection of animals, including two breeding pairs of mountain gorillas, a natural history museum, an aquarium building, a nocturnal house, and a birdhouse that used an innovative system to contain the birds. The cages were brightly lit and the hallways, where the people stood, were darkened with no barrier between. The birds chose to remain in the light and seldom ventured out into the public area. It was innovative enough to have been named after the zoo—the Antwerp Cage System.
The Frankfurt Zoo was an “excellent zoo. displays & exhibits always imaginative & enjoyable.” I was especially taken with the bird house and a building called the Exotarium that housed a variety of animals including penguins in a simulated ice environment, a twenty-year-old colony of umbrella ants that farm their own fungus, and a very imaginative “tropical landscape with huge fish below water and plants, turtles, and birds above”. The Japanese giant salamander lived in an aquarium at the bottom of a gentle waterfall that receded far back into a long, narrow space giving such an illusion of a natural setting that I stopped for a long while to marvel at it.
My next stop was at a small zoo in Gelsenkierken. It was primarily a holding compound for the animal dealer, Mr. Hermann Ruhe, who was supplying our animals. Soon after I arrived, I was handed a cable from Dr. Voss back in Toronto. It said, “camels for Toronto must have standing humps as per agreement with importer. Therefore inspect carefully. You are entitled to reject unsatisfactory specimens. If in doubt, telephone Mr. Cahill or me. greetings Voss”. The possibility of a confrontation with the legendary animal dealer over my opinion of camel humps was, to say the least, disconcerting.
My final two stops were in Hanover and Hamburg. I toured the Hanover Zoo in the rain, but it was an “outstanding zoo for my favorites—African antelope & elephants”. Hagenbeck’s Tierpark in Hamburg was one of the pioneers in the use of hidden moats to create natural vistas and panoramas with predators and prey in the same view.
On the morning of Saturday, June 8th, I boarded the ship, dropped my suitcase in a small room with a bed that would prove way too short for my six foot eight inch frame, and observed the loading process. By 4:30 PM, my consignment of twenty animals had been loaded: 2 Siberian tigers, 2 Sarus cranes, 6 Bactrian camels, and 10 assorted hoofed animals.
All the animals were in crates that were lashed securely to the deck near the rear of the ship. The camels, however, were not in crates. They were in pens that had been constructed on each side of the central hatch opening, three animals to a pen. I was given hurried instructions that covered cleaning and feeding by the man who had delivered the animals to the dock.
I considered Monday, June 10th to be the first day of the journey, even though we had been on-board since Saturday, because this was the day we set sail at 6:30 PM. The day was not without its drama, however. It turns out we were scheduled to stop in Rouen, France and, because of quarantine restrictions and our animal health certificates, we had to get permission from the Canadian government to stop there.
The hoofed animals were in wooden crates that had a lift-up sliding door at the front end and back end. Each door had two nails side by side, one nail in the door and one nail in the crate, with a one-foot long piece of wire tied to each nail. This allowed the doors to slide open about a foot for feeding at the front end and raking out manure at the other, while preventing the animal from raising the door enough to escape.
The crossing was largely uneventful. About two thirds of the way across the Atlantic, our pace slowed to a crawl because we were in iceberg territory. When the weather cleared, we did see some impressive icebergs in the distance. The next day, we chugged out of the iceberg zone in and into a fog so thick we couldn’t even see the bow of the ship. Late in the day however, we broke out of the fog and the southern coast of Newfoundland came into view. We were nearly home.
On day 14—Sunday, June 23rd, I awoke to a still, silent ship for the first time in nearly two weeks. The engines had been shut down during the night when we docked at Montreal. The docks were quiet on Sunday and again on Monday for the St. Jean Baptiste Holiday in Quebec. On Tuesday morning, all animals were unloaded by noon—but my problems were not over. The import permit for the Sarus cranes had the wrong date, and we had more camels than had been permitted. We finally got it all worked out and sent the tigers to Granby, Quebec, the hoofed stock to the quarantine station at Levis, Quebec, and began the drive from Montreal to Toronto. We had a zoo to open.
Next week: An Opening Day to … Forget?