BY Aaron Angell in One Takes | 22 APR 14
Featured in
Issue 163


The wonders of Croydon's Beaver Water World Zoological Gardens & Animal Rescue Centre

BY Aaron Angell in One Takes | 22 APR 14

Big Boy the alligator, star of Live and Let Die (1973), in the education room at Beaver Water World. Photograph: Anna Starling

Beaver Water World Zoological Gardens & Animal Rescue Centre (I have never known it as anything other than the deliciously Russ Meyer-esque ‘Beaverworld’) is hollowed out of the verdant hinterland surrounding Croydon, on the Kent/Surrey border, where I grew up. Someone at school told me this patchwork of once-coppiced woodland and ancient roads, known locally as ‘The Lanes’, was ‘where they invented dogging’. And an old customer of my dad’s, like the legendary Sir Gawain, beheaded someone with a sword and left him in twain in The Lanes, before turning himself in.

The inhabitants of the zoo are a litany of other people’s bad decisions. King cobras, Caiman crocodiles, basilisks (the non-cryptozoological, water-walking variety), numberless terrapins, boa constrictors and other exotic species can be found here, all bristling behind smeared glass in a boiling warren in the Croydon bush. When an ill-sold crocodile, snake or lizard outgrows its teenage owner (or vice-versa), it ends up in the generous and caring hands of Beaverworld. I have several personal anecdotes of kids buying lizards and other exotic pets, getting bored of them and giving them away. I remember especially the custodian of a pair of water dragons realizing his money was better spent on fitting his car with bodywork and ultraviolet neon lighting. Curiously, neon lighting is something also available in Beaverworld’s shop (it is used for growing marine corals and sponges). Beaverworld seems at pains to distance itself from this shop (despite sharing floorspace), as perhaps it could be seen to complete this cycle of suburban exoticism, selling tarantulas, giant millipedes and a host of other creatures for next to nothing.

The most fondly remembered denizen of Beaverworld is ‘Big Boy’, a three-metre-long alligator. A retired screen performer, he appeared in numerous ads as well as in the 1973 James Bond movie Live and Let Die and an episode of the British sitcom The Young Ones, which ran from 1982–84. In winter, Big Boy would lie without moving in a sort of drained concrete pond like a piece of painted fibreglass. When my mum once asked the man who fed him dead birds through a metal hatch if he was still alive, he replied: ‘If I went in there, he’d still fucking have me.’ When Big Boy died in 2006, at the age of 45, locals left piles of flowers at the electrified fence of his outdoor enclosure: he is now stuffed and on display. The alligator’s old pen is now where Beaverworld keeps its elusive beavers; I have never seen one in countless joyful visits over the course of 20 years, and a sign on their fence now states bluntly: ‘You are extremely unlikely to see a beaver.’ 

Aaron Angell (b.1987) is an artist who lives and works in London. His current solo exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), Glasgow runs until 18 March 2018. He has a forthcoming solo show at Kunstverein Freiburg and a sculpture commission at the Swiss Institute, New York.