Sunday, 16 November 2014

Chinchillas in Zoos, and early import

AJP Photograph
Long-tailed Chinchillas (Chinchilla laniger) appear to be in deep trouble in the wild. However, I have not been able to find any definitive evidence on their status that is not nearly 20 years old. There are, of course, lots of domesticated chinchillas which have their origins in this species (see my earlier post). The few zoos I have visited in recent years seem to show them as domesticated ‘educational’ animals rather than in a nocturnal house setting of naturalistic habitat or in the size of colony that might occur in the wild—in other words, an exhibit that would really play an ambassadorial role in drawing attention to the parlous state of this species in the wild. I thought I had read somewhere that a British Zoo once had such a colony of chinchillas. Then the Bartlett Society Journal dropped on my desk. Russell Tofts in his article on the history of Jersey Zoo (now called, euphemistically in what must be another example of political correctness and focus-group inspired marketing strategy, Wildlife Park) provided what I had been trying to remember, under the year heading 1966:

In Jersey, an airy block building measuring 10 feet by 12 feet, well-lit by natural light, was constructed for an initial colony of twenty-five animals. By the end of a successful breeding season, the colony had risen to thirty-one (including seven animals that had had to be removed).

I would not think the Jersey effort would have been successful as an exhibit. Chinchillas really do sleep all day and a reversed daylight system would be needed to see them on the move. Nor do I underestimate the difficulty of setting up a colony in the first place. Adult chinchillas take very unkindly to being introduced to new potential cagemates; very unkindly is an underestimate.

In the 1950s chinchilla bubble in UK, when gullible individuals thought they were would be able to make their fortunes by breeding chinchillas for fur, and prices of live chinchillas rocketed, pairs of chinchillas were advertised at from £50 in 1957, the equivalent of £875 today. I think these chinchillas were from imported stock that was probably derived from the Chapman collection which was taken to California in 1923.

Advertisement: Cage Birds 21 February 1957
However, Britain had seen chinchillas before then, both in zoos and private collections. I came across this mention in an article by HD Astley in the September 1913 issue of Avicultural Magazine

Mr Goodfellow [Walter Goodfellow, 1866-1953, the renowned collector] brought home from Chili [sic], landing in the first week of July, some birds which were a puzzle to those who had never before seen them. Mrs. Johnston very kindly invited me to go to Burrswood on the day after their arrival. Incidentally, the principal interest was not birds, but Chlnchillas; which I preferred infinitely to see in their skins, rather than the latter made into muffs and boas, etc. As however, they are not birds, I must refrain from studying them too closely, at any rate in the Magazine suffice it to say, they are most fascinating, and a pearly-grey coated Chinchilla, when tame, would make a charming pet. 

I do not know whether any of the chinchillas imported into Britain survived until after the Second World War. It is possible that they did because the super-rich of the day kept extensive collections, particularly of birds, and it is doubtful if records of what many of them had and bred were kept or preserved.