The supermarket trolley is a comparatively recent newcomer to our shores (writes Bin-Liner). Until about twenty years ago it was unknown, but a large-scale immigration pattern from the USA occurred until quickly it became a familiar sight in our supermarkets and larger groceries, where it was kept in captivity.

What has happened recently to alert naturalists’ attention is that the trolley has started to break out of captivity and live in the wild. It is almost impossible these days to go for a walk in our suburbs or inner town areas without coming across one or more of these large creatures browsing quietly on a traffic island or just standing peacefully on the pavement. So far we have been totally baffled by this new behaviour pattern.

The phenomenon is quite common in old-fashioned rural nature studies, of course, where an import such as mink or coypu later escapes from captivity and inhabits vast stretches of East Anglia. But this is the first time it has happened to a purely urban creature. Nor has it happened to such close relations as the British Rail trolley or airport trolley, which very rarely stray far from their home. Only the supermarket trolley seems driven by the urge to escape.

Quite why it should want to do so is not clear, especially as it is totally unadapted to life in the wild. Its daily diet involves a considerable intake of washing powder boxes, packets of flour, frozen fish fingers, etc., and this it simply will not find out on our streets. Many of them, I’m afraid to say, starve to death after only a few days and meet a tangled and rusty end, unless recaptured by their owners. And yet they persist in escaping.

Some larger stores such as Sainsbury’s have tried a programme of keeping the trolleys chained up when they are not being taken for a walk yet even here they have met failure and have been forced to give up on the idea, as if the trolley’s drive to freedom is too strong for chains.

Professor Karelius, in Urban Nature Studies, Vol X1, No.6, puts forward the interesting theory that trolleys somehow develop a strong if temporary affection for visitors to supermarkets and try to follow them home. He even cites cases of families who have adopted a trolley as a pet and let it live in their houses with them – in one or two cases the trolley has changed its diet entirely and takes only newspapers or the family laundry.

If this is so, however, it still does not explain why so many trolleys are found in the streets, having patently not followed anyone home. He suggests that this maybe because families grow tired of their demands or their great size compared with most household pets, and simply throw them out on the streets as they might an unwanted dog or cat. If this is so, we certainly need more documented evidence than he provides.

My own personal theory is that the supermarkets trolley’s burst for freedom is prompted by an urge to inter-breed. If a well-known species such as a Tesco trolley finds itself surrounded entirely by other Tesco trolleys, it may well have an innate compulsion to search out and mate with, say, a Safeways or Fine Fare trolley, in order to keep the pedigree well mixed. Having said this, however, I must admit that I have no experience to support it; I just happen to like the idea.

As a final postscript to these notes I must report a very rare sighting spotted last month: a fully operating, adult in-flight trolley seen in West London. These are normally only ever seen inside airplanes, where they have been trained to carry loads of miniature spirits, small hot lunches, duty-free cigarettes, etc. This trolley, spotted near West Drayton, had, perhaps predictably, lost all of its load of drink and cigarettes. None of the hot lunches, however, had been touched.

The Times 1984


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  The Times
  Royal Rendexvous
The Supermarket Trolley
  From an idea by Keats
  Of Brahms, the man, I sing
  Mike's Macbeth
  Rip-Roaring Novel
  Big Bang
  Unusual Jobs
The Sock Psychologist
  Shakespeare Made Simple