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Downton star inspired to take film role by amazing story of Belfast zookeeper who kept elephant in back yard during Blitz

Ivan Little speaks to the team behind Zoo about how they were influenced by Denise Austin, who saved pachyderm from wartime cull of animals

Published 07/06/2016

A poster for Zoo, a story told through the eyes of 12-year-old Tom,aided by his friends, as he fights to save the animal
A poster for Zoo, a story told through the eyes of 12-year-old Tom,aided by his friends, as he fights to save the animal
Shelia the baby elephant with sisters Denise and Beatrice Austin in their Whitewell Road home
Denise Austin and a friend with Shelia the baby elephant
A poster for Zoo, a story told through the eyes of 12-year-old Tom, aided by his friends, as he fights to save the animal
A poster for Zoo, a story told through the eyes of 12-year-old Tom,aided by his friends, as he fights to save the animal
A poster for Zoo, a story told through the eyes of 12-year-old Tom,aided by his friends, as he fights to save the animal
Downton Abbey’s Penelope Wilton

Local people who fancy themselves as movie moguls are getting the chance to invest in a new film based on one of Northern Ireland's most famous wartime stories - about an elephant, that wasn't so much in the room as in the backyard of a north Belfast house.

Top British actors including Toby Jones, from The Hunger Games, and Penelope Wilton, from Downton Abbey, have been signed up to take part in Zoo. The film is due to start shooting next month in Belfast and Canada, where an elephant called Nellie - what else? - has been recruited to play the heavyweight starring role by the rather aptly named Wee Buns Films company.

Belfast's Ian McElhinney, and Irish actress Amy Huberman also have key roles in the film.

The locally based producers searched the world for almost three years to find the perfect pachyderm to double as Sheila, the baby elephant that was rescued from Belfast Zoo by one of her keepers, Denise Austin, after police officers shot dead 33 animals, fearing there would be chaos if they escaped during the Luftwaffe raids.

Ms Austin, who was one of the attraction's first female keepers, sheltered Sheila in the back yard of her home on the Whitewell Road. She survived the war, dying in 1960.

The hunt for an elephant to play the part of Sheila ended in Hamilton, Canada, where three-year-old Nellie is a popular resident at the African Lion Safari under the care of Charlie Gray, a world authority on elephants.

Zoo producer John Leslie said: "There was a whole debate over whether or not we should use computer-generated imagery to put an elephant on the screen, but we all felt if we could work with a real animal we should."

Writer and director Colin McIvor became interested in making a film about the elephant after reading a story in the Belfast Telegraph.

Initially, the woman who saved Sheila was only known as the Elephant Angel, but after appeals from Belfast Zoo it was established that her name was Denise Austin.

Colin immediately thought that the story could prove to be the basis of a hit movie. And in typical elephantine style, he never forgot.

Now, after nearly six years in development, the final draft of the script by McIvor and his Wee Buns colleague Katy Jackson is about to be turned into a film that has been backed by, among others, Northern Ireland Screen and the British Film Institute

The plot of Zoo, which is aimed at the family market, doesn't stick 100% to the original elephant's tale.

John said: "We have three children taking the elephant from the zoo, and in our film the father of one of the youngsters is the zookeeper who hears about the Government officials ordering the cull of what they consider to be dangerous animals.

"The children take the elephant to Ms Austin's yard for her to look after it, but for various reasons we have changed her name to Mrs Leonard."

The elephant in the film also has a different name - Buster, not Sheila.

Before filming can commence producers need to raise more money. John said his team were just a short way off their £3m target budget, and that's why they have set up an Enterprise Investment Scheme syndicate (EIS) for entrepreneur to put cash in.

"The main thing about the EIS is that it's a Government incentive, so there's a 30% tax break for investors and they also stand to get returns later on," John explained.

Smaller investors are being encouraged to get on board too through an Indiegogo crowdfunding project designed to attract money from the general public and friends and family members of people involved in the film. The producer said: "It's a kick-starter scheme where you get DVDs or T-shirts in return for putting in something as small as £10."

He also admitted that he was on a mission to persuade local business to get involved in Northern Ireland's rapidly expanding film industry.

"To really secure our local film industry, indigenous producers, writers, directors and so on need to encourage local investors to develop our own infrastructure that does not rely on Game of Thrones, Universal and HBO," John told this newspaper.

"That route makes us a service provider not a standalone indigenous industry. This is a debate that in my view needs to be aired and discussed in earnest here."

Filming on Zoo is due to start in Belfast on July 18. "Everything is ready," said John. "Most of the crew and cast members have their dates, but we just have to get this last piece of money in place by the end of June to hit our budget. It's a hyper-critical time.

"But that's the way it often is with films and we think our ducks are almost all lined up."

Global interest in the film, which is due to be released early next year, is already said to be high. At the Cannes Film Festival, the movie's sales agent Metro International pre-sold Zoo to a major worldwide distributor and in the process attracted interest from Poland, Turkey, the former Yugoslavia and Japan.

Writer Colin said: "Regardless of the fact that this true story played out on my hometown streets, my reaction to it was immediate - this is an inspiring cinematic story with universal appeal. The festival's reaction to the package has proved my instincts to be correct."

John said that people had long been fascinated by the story of the Angel Elephant, which was featured recently on The One Show on the BBC.

"With children now involved in the storyline we are confident that the film will appeal to families in a big way," he added. "But it will also have some gritty moments in it with the bombing raids and it is very realistic."

Downplayed in the film will be the cull in the zoo, in which marksmen from the RUC were asked to kill the 33 animals on orders from the Ministry of Public Security.

The directive came amid fears that if the animals escaped from the zoo and got onto the Antrim Road during the blitz, they could wreak havoc on the area and surrounding streets.

Among the animals killed on Saturday, April 21, 1941, were one hyena, two wolves, one puma, one tiger, one Barbary lion, one black bear, two polar bears and one lynx. There was even a giant rat, whose name was Hugo.

Zoo is also said to be funny with lots of Belfast humour in it. "It really has a bit of everything," explained John.

The creative team behind the film has an impressive track record, with previous efforts including The Survivalist, A Patch of Fog, Behold the Lamb and TV series The Truth Commissioner.

Zoo will be shot over five weeks in Belfast, including a number of days in the city's zoo, which will be adapted to look like it did in the wartime years.

There will also be two weeks of filming in Ontario, close to where Nellie lives and where a set replicating the back yard of Ms Austin's Whitewell Road house will be built.

According to the Africa Lion Safari's website, Nellie is an Asian elephant and she was born on Friday August 2, 2013, at 6am weighing in at 309lbs.

The site adds: "She was born to her 19-year-old mother, Natasha, after a 21-month pregnancy. Nellie is the third calf for Natasha and first for her father Johnson.

"Her birth is very significant as Nellie represents the first all-Canadian Asian elephant born at the park as both of her parents were also born here."

The fact that the production team behind Zoo are going to Canada to shoot her scenes means, of course, that Nellie the elephant won't have to pack her trunk to come here.

  • To find out more about the crowdfunding initiative, visit or go to and search for Zoo a feature film

Belfast Telegraph

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