Discover the rich heritage of Perth Zoo as you explore our beautiful grounds. With a foundation that dates back 125 years, echoes of the past still resonate throughout the Zoo. From a place of recreation and fascination, we have evolved into a hub of education, conservation, and inspiration. During your visit, embark on the Zoo’s ‘Heritage Trail’ (pdf) to uncover the historical gems that still stand today.
A Journey that Began in 1896
At the end of the 19th century, the Western Australian Acclimatization Committee was established to help newcomers adjust to the exotic Australian landscape in the burgeoning ‘western colony’. Although their introduction of European species into the Australian wild proved short-sighted, their second function was truly inspired—a zoological garden.
The committee enlisted the expertise of Albert Le Souef, Australia’s leading zoological engineer, to select a suitable site in Perth. His son, Ernest, was appointed Director at the age of 27. In June 1897, the first sod was turned in South Perth, marking the beginning of a transformative journey.
Over the following 16 months, core infrastructure was built, including accommodations for bears, monkeys, and mammals. The arrival of the first animals by ship, such as orangutans, monkeys, lions, and a tiger, further brought the Zoo to life.
Perth Zoo opened its gates on 17 October 1898, welcoming 53,000 visitors in its first nine months of operation. Admission fees remained unchanged until 1951—a modest six pence for adults and three pence for children!
When the 41-acre South Perth site was chosen in 1897, meticulous planning of the gardens became a priority. Head gardener Henry Steedman, together with Zoo founder Ernest Le Souef, dedicated countless hours to create a botanical haven. Cartloads of manure were brought in daily for two years to enrich the sandy, nutrient-poor soil. An artesian bore was sunk to irrigate the plants and trees sourced from all corners of the British empire.
The gardens flourished, boasting rose beds, lupin fields, exotic tropical plants, and a majestic collection of 60 palm tree species that still grace our grounds today. The Zoo even grew its own crops to feed the animals, including lettuce, alfalfa, carrots, lucerne and onions.
Today, our commitment to botanical excellence remains strong. We cultivate our own animal fodder, but with a twist—hibiscus, bamboo, Fijian Fire Plant, Mirror Plant, and Elephant Grass now grace the menu. The Perth community also contributes fodder from their own gardens. Moreover, landscaping and flora play a critical role in designing immersive habitats within the exhibits, fostering a naturalistic environment for our animals and a captivating experience for our visitors.
Remembering Ernest Albert Le Souef (1869–1937)
Ernest Albert Le Souef, born into Australia’s premier zoological family in Victoria, made an indelible mark as the Director of Perth’s Zoological Gardens. A qualified veterinarian and veteran of two wars, he brought his expertise to the role, serving as architect, landscape designer, road constructor, and animal collector.
Le Souef tirelessly endeavoured to provide visitors with a memorable zoo experience throughout his 35-year tenure. Beyond the animals, he introduced rides, tennis courts, shady picnic areas, and mineral baths. In 1919, he established a museum at the Zoo, offering students practical anatomy and physiology lessons, as well as providing free veterinary classes to farmers.
During the Great Depression, financial hardships forced Le Souef to make difficult decisions, including reducing staff and cutting wages, including his own. Exhibits fell into disrepair, rendering them increasingly unsafe. In 1932, on Le Souef's recommendation, the State Gardens Board assumed control of the Zoo.
Fun and Games at the Heart of the Zoo
From its earliest days, Perth Zoo has been a vibrant centre of entertainment. Fashion parades, ‘beautiful baby’ contests, croquet matches, live music, car shows, Boy Scout jamborees, and even the Australasian Open in 1909 have graced our grounds.
Favourites among visitors were pony rides, goat carting, and unforgettable elephant rides, a cherished part of the Perth Zoo experience until 1961. In 1932, the Zoo Train began its rounds around the sporting oval, and the carousel enchanted visitors when it opened in 1947.
Today, the spirit of entertainment and fun pioneered by Ernest Le Souef lives on. Our playgrounds, BBQ areas, mechanised rides, animal encounters, and a jam-packed calendar of events continue to delight tens-of-thousands of families every year.
Volunteers: Four Decades and Counting
Perth Zoo’s volunteer Docents, derived from the Latin word “docere” meaning ‘to teach’, have been an invaluable part of our community for over four decades.
In response to the first-ever recruitment call in 1982, approximately 80 individuals stepped forward, with 54 joining as volunteers. These dedicated Docents provided guided tours and assisted in the school holiday animal contact area. Remarkably, two of the original volunteers remain active members to this day.
Since then, over 1,800 individuals have graduated as Docents, and today the Perth Zoo Docent Association boasts around 300 members. They enhance the Zoo experience by providing tours, presentations, and valuable information to our 680,000 annual visitors. Additionally, they assist with behind-the-scenes animal husbandry tasks. Our dedicated volunteers serve as ambassadors, effectively communicating the vital role of zoos in wildlife conservation.
Changes for the Better
A visit to Perth Zoo today presents a stark contrast to previous eras, even just a few decades ago. Our modern zoo boasts a dedicated team of 200 staff members committed to delivering exceptional experiences. Animals now thrive in appropriate social groups within naturalistic settings, with their welfare as the utmost priority. By exposing visitors to the wonders of the natural world, we aim to foster positive attitudes toward wildlife that benefit both society and the environment.
To realise our modern vision, significant changes were necessary. Outdated cement cages, bars, and mesh barriers that failed to meet contemporary animal welfare standards became a thing of the past. We replaced the elephants’ concrete jungle with an environment reminiscent of their natural habitat. Where a picnic oval once stood, a sprawling and captivating African habitat emerged. We first moved the orangutans from confining cages, allowing them to explore open exhibits. Later, we constructed towering tree-like structures to provide them with elevated living spaces, aligning with their natural instincts.
The days of bars separating visitors from animals are gone. Instead, we employ subtler safety barriers such as moats, water bodies, and glass enclosures. Across the entire Zoo, industrial enclosures have given way to meticulously designed, naturalistic habitats tailored to meet the specific physical, psychological and social needs of our animal residents.
As you immerse yourself in Perth Zoo’s heritage and marvel at its transformation, remember that our journey continues. The future holds new exhibits, expansion projects and initiatives aimed at furthering our conservation and education efforts. (For more information on the Zoo’s future development, check out our Master Plan.)
We invite you to join us on this remarkable adventure, where echoes of the past guide us toward a brighter future for wildlife and our community.