notes on the phrase ‘feeding time at the zoo’

The image of zoo animals scrambling for food at feeding time has given rise to the phrase feeding time at the zoo, denoting an undisciplined assault on food and drink and, by extension, any disorderly but excited scene.

The following is a selection of picturesque uses of feeding time at the zoo:

1-: From The Stage, published in The Cornishman (Penzance, Cornwall, England) of Thursday 7th August 1879—here, spread designates a banquet, a lavish meal:

There was a very pleasant “feeding timeat the Zoo on Wednesday, the members of the Green Room Club 1, with a number of guests, assembling for the “Annual Festival.” A better “spread” could not have been desired even by the most fastidious of epicures. The viands were tempting, and the wines were of tip-top quality. Mr. Henry Irving 2 occupied the chair, and in well-chosen terms proposed success to the club. A toast in his honour was afterwards received with acclamation.

1 With reference to green room in the sense of a room in a theatre in which performers can relax when they are off stage, the Green Room Club was a club for actors in London.
2 Henry Irving (John Henry Brodribb – 1838-1905) was an English actor-manager.

2-: From Panther’s Cub (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, [1910]), a novel by the Irish author Agnes Castle (circa 1860-1922) and her husband, Egerton Castle (1858-1920):

The first heavy, driving raindrops brought a scuttling crowd of bemuslined and befeathered refugees into the dining-hall, escorted or followed by their cavaliers. The echoing marble hollows were filled with laughter and chatter; when the great clap reverberated it struck a breathless silence, after which the human clatter began again, at first subdued, then rising to loudness as each voice strove to dominate the others.
Presently Mr. Scott, holding Vere Hamilton firmly by the arm, reappeared into the deserted reception-room.
“I declare, my dear Verie, that the parrot-house at the Zoo is nothing to it. Such a cacophony!” […]
“I will have a whisky and soda,” he declared, and drew his cigar-case. “You’d better have one too; dry you nicely. Unless you’re pining for the menagerie? Panther’s 3 got them all next door. Feeding time at the Zoo. Listen to ’em!”

3 In the novel, Panther is the nickname given to Comtesse Fulvia Lovinska—this is the explanation that Count Lovinski gives to Jean de Robecq:

“Beware of her, cher ami. Never hope to tame her. Believe one who knows. It is a panther. Let her but get at your throat, she will not release you till she has sucked to the last drop of your blood.”

3-: From the column Chipped and Slashed, by Willie Wheeze, published in The Elkhart Review (Elkhart, Indiana) of Thursday 24th July 1919:


Feeding time at the zoo has lost its punch now that the folks eat more in the Y. W. C. A. chow shop on Lexington avenue. With certain species of wild cafeteria wolf you can see and hear more exciting grub technique than the caged animals at Lincoln Park display when quareling with a meal.
They set a layout of food before them and they begin to punish it by setting their jaws in high, imitating a hat rack with their elbows, poking the neck at the food like a steam shovel and working their fists from plate to mouth like a Godfrey coal conveyor.
The sound of a meal is half between a concrete mixer and a washing machine. There should be food traffic cops in restaurants for those goofs, to give them the stop and go signals and judges to jug them for reckless eating.

This cartoon, illustrating a reprint of Ain’t Nature Wonderful?, published in The Arizona Republican (Phoenix, Arizona) of Wednesday 27th August 1919, depicts a man saying, of another one who is wolfing food:

With pigs selling at $24. a 100 lbs. that guy is losing money an’ don’t know it.

Ain't Nature Wonderful - The Arizona Republican (Phoenix, Arizona) - 27 August 1919


4-: From Police Join In As Freshmen Battle Sophs: Columbia First Year Men, Besieged at Endicott Hotel Dinner, Quickly Accept Challenge to Fray, published in the New York Tribune (New York City, N.Y.) of Thursday 11th March 1920:

There then ensued as gaudy a fight as ever a cop waded into or got boosted out of. Doleful sounds arising on the quiet air of evening gave neighbors the impression that a couple of train wrecks, a pogrom and feeding time at theZoo” had all happened at once.

5-: From The Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) of Saturday 15th April 1922—Plesiosaurus designates a genus of extinct marine reptiles of the infraorder Plesiosauria, having a small head on a long neck, a short tail and four large paddle-like limbs:


Philadelphia, April 14.—Philadelphia dancing teachers hailed with delight news from Buenos Aires that a new terpsichorean wrinkle, called the plesiosaurian glide has been invented and that three new tangoes have been dedicated to the Patagonian monster for which Argentine naturalists are on a still hunt.
They united in saying that if the dance proves popular it will sound the death knell of the “shimmy” and its little sister the “toddle.”
The fact that the plesiosaurian glide is done to tango time filled one teacher with hope. Once popularize the tango, she said, and something artistic will have been accomplished. Jazz dancing is dying, the teacher continued, and the tango will mark the passing of music that suggests feeding time at the zoo or lightning striking a hardware store.
Another teacher said that he welcomed the innovation, but that the name would probably have to be changed to fit the vocabulary of the dancing public. When told of the plesiosaurus’ alleged love for prehistoric mud, the teacher immediately suggested “mud turtle glide.”

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