A Sanctuary for Over a Century: A look at Perth Zoo’s history

Next time you visit Perth Zoo, keep an eye out for some of the historical sites still standing by following the Zoo’s Heritage Trail. Download the Perth Zoo Heritage Trail (pdf) or collect one from the Information Centre during your visit.

Find out more about the Zoo’s rich past:

Perth Zoo – it all began in 1896

Entrance on Suburban Road, c1901The Western Australian Acclimatization Committee first met in 1896. It had two roles. One was to introduce animals from Europe into the Australian wild – a role that later fell out of favour – and the other was to establish a zoological garden. In 1897, they invited the Director of Melbourne Zoo, Albert Le Souef, to select a site for the zoological garden.

Albert Le Souef chose the current South Perth site which “would answer admirably for the purpose”. His son, Ernest, was appointed as Director and work began in June 1897.

In the first year, several animal exhibits were built including two bear caves, a monkey house, a mammal house and a model castle for guinea pigs. The first animals brought in included an ‘ourang-outang’, two monkeys, four ostriches, a pair of lions and one tiger. More were on their way.

Entrance on Suburban Road, c1900On a rainy day at 3pm on 17 October 1898, the Zoological Gardens were opened by the Governor of Western Australia, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Gerard Smith. The Zoo attracted 53,000 visitors in the first nine months of operation with an entrance fee of six pence for adults and three pence for children.

“The Zoological Gardens were the showpiece of Perth … the cages were very good for those times. Very rarely were there any accidents with the animals. Colonel Le Souef ran the Zoo very well. … The gardens made the whole thing and the animals were well looked after and in very good nick.”

(Excerpt from interview with John Manton, son of the Zoo’s Gatekeeper until 1932)

Ernest Albert Le Souef

Ernest Le Souef with his pet python

(13 September 1869 – 27 November 1937)

Born in Victoria, Ernest Albert Le Souef was one of ten children.

Le Souef worked as Secretary to the Victorian Acclimatization Committee and qualified as a veterinarian in 1895. He served in the army during the Boer War and World War I. In 1897, Le Souef was appointed Director of Perth Zoo and moved to Perth to begin its construction. He was the architect, landscape designer, road constructor and animal collector.

He married Ellen in 1899 and they had five children: Leslie, Mildred, Dorothy (who died in 1905 as a baby), Nancy and Francis.

“Colonel Le Souef was a very nice man. He was a gentleman and a very kind person. … He loved children and was thrilled on the big picnic days when the children visited the Zoo in droves for pony rides.”

(Excerpt from interview with John Manton, son of the Zoo’s Gatekeeper until 1932)

During Le Souef’s 35 years at the Zoo he became a much loved public figure and was always looking for ways of making people’s visits to the Zoo memorable.

“He loved people and wanted to provide them with a cheap outing … free rides, … hot mineral baths, tennis courts … and always heaps of cool shade in the blazing summer days, where they could picnic on green shady lawns.”

Mildred Manning, nee Le Souef

Ernest Le Souef with Winthrop Hackett in front of a bird cageIn 1919, Le Souef was a part-time lecturer in agriculture and veterinary science at The University of Western Australia. He founded a museum at the Zoo for students to learn practical anatomy and physiology and provided free veterinary classes to farmers.

During the Depression, the Zoo’s financial position worsened. In 1928 Le Souef was forced to cut wages and reduce staff, taking a voluntary cut in salary himself. Many exhibits fell into disrepair, making them increasingly unsafe. In 1932, upon Le Souef’s recommendation, the State Gardens Board took control of the Zoo.

After leaving the Zoo, Le Souef joined the Agricultural Bank as a veterinary adviser until his retirement in 1935. Ernest Le Souef died on 27 November 1937.

Fun and Games at the Zoo

Goat Cart Rides, c1910For over a century, Perth Zoo has been a focal point of entertainment for Perth families. It has hosted fashion parades, tennis tournaments, croquet matches, relaxing mineral baths, live music and even ‘beautiful baby’ competitions.

“At night the grounds are illuminated with hundreds of different coloured lamps that send a rainbow radiance over the scene. Concerts are held every Saturday evening during summer and there is a really fine quartet called ‘Orpheus’ whose harmonious blending of sweet music in the lovely summer nights is well worth listening to.”

(Zoo visitor 1901)

Tennis at Perth ZooScout groups came to the Zoo for sleepovers and school groups visited for an exciting and educational day. The tennis courts were hired out and the Zoo was even home to the Australasian Open (later known as the Australian Open) in 1909.

Elephant rides were a part of the Zoo experience for many years until this practice ended in 1961. Pony rides were a favourite as was the incredibly popular Zoo train which started in 1932. The Carousel was installed in 1947 and is still in use today.

Perth Zoo values the important place it holds in the community. It now attracts more than 620,000 visitors per year. Thousands of families still visit the Zoo to share their special occasions, whether it’s the school holidays, a birthday or even a wedding. The modern summer events season carries on the tradition of visitors experiencing an evening of entertainment in an atmosphere unlike any other.

Docents: 1982 to today

The first Zebra Car in 1986Perth Zoo’s volunteers, or Docents, have been a rich part of the Zoo’s make-up for more than 25 years.

A small article appeared in The West Australian newspaper in February 1982 seeking people interested in volunteering at Perth Zoo. Around 80 people responded, leading to the first volunteer training session. In that first year, 54 volunteers joined the Zoo.

Over the past 32 years, around 1,100 people have graduated as Docents and today the Perth Zoo Docent Association has nearly 300 members who provide their services to the Zoo.

Of the original 54 Docents, three still volunteer at Perth Zoo – Jeanette Robertson, Eveline Read and Bob Wainwright.

DocentsIn the early days, Docents provided guided tours around the Zoo and helped out in the animal contact area which was open during the school holidays.

Their duties have expanded since then but their main role is still to educate and interact with the Zoo’s visitors. They staff the Information Centre, provide guided tours and give presentations at exhibits and out in the community. They also assist with behind-the-scenes tasks including the creation of behavioural enrichment items for the animals, harvesting termites for the Numbats and undertaking animal watches.

Having seen a lot of changes to the Zoo in a short period of time, Docents help communicate the changing role of zoos. Perth Zoo’s primary focus is now conservation and education.

PalmsHistorically Botanical

The beauty of the Perth Zoo grounds and its extensive botanical collection are largely due to the vision of the Zoo’s founder.

As soon as the 41-acre South Perth site was selected in 1897, work began on the gardens. Located on typical sandy soil and lacking in nutrients, cart loads of manure were brought into the Zoo every day for two years to improve the soil quality. The head gardener, Henry Steedman, and Zoo founder, Ernest Le Souef, spent long hours carefully planning the gardens.

Water was scarce. The sinking of an artesian bore in 1898 allowed the Zoo to reticulate its gardens which then flourished. Plants and trees from every corner of the British empire filled the Zoo. There were rose gardens, lupin fields, exotic tropical plants and a myriad of palms. This palm collection still stands today and boasts about 60 species including Canary Island Date Palms that are more than 100 years old.

Lettuce crop

Crops were grown at the Zoo to supply food for the animals. Lettuce, alfalfa, carrots, lucerne and onions were all grown and any surplus material was sold to the public. The Zoo continues part of this tradition by growing fodder for the animals. Fodder grown on site includes hibiscus, bamboo, Fijian Fire Plant and Mirror Plant. The Perth public also donates fodder from their gardens.

Today, the Zoo’s horticultural team also plays an important role in the development of new exhibits. Their involvement in exhibit design includes selecting suitable plants that are safe for the animals and help to replicate the animals’ natural habitat. The plants are also selected to help immerse visitors in the environment of the animals’ native homes. This can be experienced in the African Savannah where many examples of African flora are planted to create the feeling of actually being there.

Changes for the Better

Viewing the animals was a source of enjoyment for visitors, but what did they really think about the way the animals were displayed? Iron bars, concrete and small display areas made it easy for the visitor to view the animals, and easy for the keepers to clean. However, little thought was given to displaying animals in exhibits simulating the animals’ natural habitat.

Today, the visitor to Perth Zoo is presented with a very different picture to those described by visitors in the early 1900s, and even to those of 10 years ago.

Perth Zoo now houses around 1100 animals from 190 different species, looked after by a staff of about 200.

The changing role of education at Perth Zoo is intrinsically linked to the changing nature and mission of the Zoo itself.

Perth Zoo aims to provide experiences of wild animals which would otherwise be unavailable to people, and seeks to develop, through these experiences, positive community attitudes towards wildlife which benefit both society and the environment. This vision is reflected in Perth Zoo’s purpose.

Realising the vision of the Zoo has meant a great many changes. Most obvious of these is the replacement of the cement and wire enclosures with naturalistic exhibits…

The Asian Elephant Exhibit
Gone is the concrete jungle — the new exhibit is surrounded by tropical vegetation and within the exhibit the elephants are provided with a pool, shady trees, large rocks, and secure, comfortable night quarters.

Oriental Small-clawed Otters
Moved from their old concrete castle, these otters can now be viewed through a glass window, which allows the visitor to observe them swimming and diving in a simulated river bed.

Life on the Lakes
Both the Main Lake and Australian Wetlands exhibit are home to a wide variety of bird life, including pelicans, Jabirus, ducks, cormorants, spoonbills, egrets, swans and herons. The Black-and-White Ruffed Lemurs and White-cheeked Gibbons find sanctuary on the islands in the middle of the lake as the water forms a natural barrier. Visitors are now able to view these primates high in their naturalistic habitat.

Apes and Monkeys — It’s All Relative!
Perth Zoo is home to a number of species of apes including orangutans, Silvery Gibbons, and 13 other primate species including baboons, marmosets, tamarins and lemurs. Most of our primates have been moved from their concrete cages and into exhibits designed to give the animals a sense of their natural habitat.

The Great Cats
Moved from their concrete and iron barred cages, the majesty, spirit and movement of lions, tigers and cheetahs can be observed closely in exhibits designed to reflect the cats’ natural habitat as much as possible.

African Savannah
Replacing a variety of old concrete and barred cages, the African Savannah is the most extensive and dramatic construction project ever undertaken by Perth Zoo. Planned to provide an ‘immersion experience’, visitors may well feel they are part of an African landscape as they view zebra, rhino, giraffe, hyaena and meerkats from a meandering pathway which simulates a dry riverbed.

Today’s modern Zoo:

  • provides a recreational venue where living native and exotic animals are displayed and which acquaints the visitor with many facets of nature;
  • aims to increase the public’s general knowledge of animals and their environments by providing educational opportunities and informative materials. A better informed public is also one that is more critical of housing and care of animals; zoos must continually strive for improvement in these areas;
  • uses educational facilities, informative zoo materials, and interpretive signage to reflect biological knowledge;
  • is an important contributor to scientific knowledge through research and breeding;
  • has left behind the “trial and error” approach to animal keeping. The care of zoo animals has become a scientific endeavour for zoos, with stringent requirements for animal husbandry and housing of zoo animals;
  • has a key role to play in species conservation. The growing threats to nature necessitate the careful and coordinated management of zoo animal collections. Captive breeding programs of threatened species are essential to the survival of these species in the wild;
  • is interlinked to zoos worldwide through common goals for conservation, species managment, and breeding loans; and
  • strives to enlarge the role of off-site habitat restoration and reintroduction of species back into the wild by networking with other Government agencies and non-Government organisations.
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