IT IS 30 years since Southampton’s very own zoo on the Common shuts its gates for the last time.

Lions and tigers, giraffes and rhinos, an elephant called Mary, and a chimpanzee with a smoking habit all used to be common sights in Southampton, when a trip to Southampton Zoo was once a favourite day out for many local families back in the 1960s until opinions started to change towards the menagerie type of zoo.

It was back in 1961 that Southampton’s very own zoo was opened on the Common, when Ben, a four-year-old chimpanzee, handed Mayor Councillor Walter Greenaway a key to open the Zoological Pets Garden at a opening ceremony in the March of that year.

Hundreds of children had queued by the gates in the drizzle for hours – each one excitedly clutching a shilling for the admission – to be amongst the first to experience the town’s new attraction. That day, as the eager crowds flocked through the gates, James Chipperfield – the man behind the venture – joined the guests to mark the occasion with celebratory champagne.

The site had been cleared of 15,000 shrubs and trees to accommodate the zoo, which occupied one-and-a-quarter acres.

Within the caged complex, the first inhabitants settled in. They included three retired chimps from the circus, a tiger, a zebra, three brown bears, a camel, a kangaroo, pythons and flying foxes. During the years the zoo was also home to elephants, a rhino, lions, cheetahs, penguins and various other birds.

The zoo, which was operated by the Chipperfield family throughout its existence, remained a popular attraction in Southampton until the early 1980s when sensitivities about the welfare of the animals kept in Southampton’s cramped zoo were highlighted by the Born Free actress Virginia McKenna.

She Actress McKenna spearheaded a campaign that culminated in a protest march on Hoglands Park demanding that Southampton’s zoo should be shut. McKenna had condemned conditions at Southampton Zoo and branded them as “so poor one’s heart sinks”.

With so much public support for McKenna’s cause, it was only a matter of time before Southampton Zoo, which was already beginning to look unkempt and run-down, would have to bow to public pressure. Almost a year after Virginia McKenna’s demo, the animals were rounded up and taken away – and the zoo closed its doors for good in 1985.