Over twelve decades, Perth Zoo has grown from a place of recreation and fascination to one of education, conservation and inspiration. Next time you visit, keep an eye out for some of the historical echoes still standing by following the Zoo’s ‘Heritage Trail’.
It all Began in 1896
At the end of the 19th century, the Western Australian Acclimatization Committee was established to help new arrivals to the bourgeoning ‘western colony’ acclimate to the exotic Australian landscape. Of their two primary functions, the first – introducing countless European species into the Australian wild – proved to be very short-sighted. Their second – establishing a zoological garden – was inspired.
Australia’s leading zoological engineer Albert Le Souef was invited to select a suitable Perth site and his 27-year-old son, Ernest, was appointed Director. The first sod was turned in June 1897. Over the following 16 months, core infrastructure was built including accommodation for bears, monkeys and mammals. The first of many animals to arrive by ship were an orangutan, two monkeys, four ostriches, a pair of lions and a tiger.
Fifty-three thousand visitors attended in the nine months following the Zoo’s opening on 17 October 1898. The admission fee was six pence for adults and three pence for children.
As soon as the 41-acre South Perth site was selected in 1897, the head gardener, Henry Steedman, and Zoo founder, Ernest Le Souef, spent long hours carefully planning the gardens. They brought in cart-loads of manure every day for two years to enhance the sandy, nutrient-poor soil and sank an artesian bore to reticulate the plants and trees that were sourced from every corner of the British empire. The gardens flourished – rose beds, lupin fields, exotic tropical plants and a 60-species-strong collection of palm trees that still stands today. The Zoo grew its own crops to feed the animals – lettuce, alfalfa, carrots, Lucerne and onions.
Today, we still grow our own ‘fodder’ for the animals, but it looks a little different – hibiscus, bamboo, Fijian Fire Plant, Mirror Plant, elephant grass. The Perth community also donates fodder straight from their own gardens. Today, too, landscaping and flora are a critical part of the design inside exhibits, not just around them; designed to create naturalistic habitats for the animals and immersive ones for visitors.
Ernest Albert Le Souef (13 September 1869 – 27 November 1937)
Ernest Albert Le Souef was one of ten children born to Australia’s premier Zoological family in Victoria. A qualified veterinarian and veteran of two wars, he had worked as Secretary to the Victorian Acclimatization Committee before his appointment as Director of Perth’s Zoological Gardens where he was architect, landscape designer, road constructor and animal collector.
Le Souef was a much loved public figure and strived to make a Zoo visit good value over his 35 years as Director by providing rides, tennis courts, shady picnic areas and mineral baths in addition to the animals. By 1919, he’d founded a museum at the Zoo for students to learn practical anatomy and physiology and provided free veterinary classes to farmers.
When the Zoo’s financial position worsened during the Depression, Le Souef was forced to reduce staff and cut wages – including his own. Exhibits fell into disrepair, making them increasingly unsafe, until in 1932, the State Gardens Board took control of the Zoo on Le Souef’s recommendation.
Fun and Games at the Zoo
Perth Zoo has been a focal point of entertainment since its earliest days – fashion parades, ‘beautiful baby’ contests, croquet matches, mineral baths, live music, car shows, scout jamborees and tennis matches. The Zoo was even home to the Australasian Open in 1909. Pony rides and goat carting were favourites, and rides on the elephant were a standard part of the Perth Zoo experience right up until 1961. The Zoo train ran circles around the sporting oval from 1932 and the carousel opened in 1947.
These days, the tradition started by Ernest Le Souef continues, with playgrounds, BBQs, mechanised rides, animal encounters and our packed season of events still delighting tens-of-thousands of families every year.
Volunteers: Three Decades and Going Strong
Perth Zoo’s volunteer Docents (from the latin ‘to teach’), have been a rich and valued part of the Zoo’s make-up for three decades. Around 80 people responded to the first ever recruitment call (1982) and 54 went on to join the Zoo as volunteers, providing guided tours and helping out in the school holiday animal contact area. Of those, two are still active members today.
In the 30+ years that followed, 1,200 people have graduated as Docents. Today the Perth Zoo Docent Association has around 300 members who add value to the Zoo experience by providing tours, presentations and information to 620,000 visitors a year. They also assist with a range of behind-the-scenes animal husbandry tasks. Most importantly our biggest volunteer ambassadors help communicate to visitors the changing role of zoos – and in 30 years they’ve changed along with us.
Changes for the Better
Today Perth Zoo visitors are presented with a very different set of experiences to those from 1898…or even 1998! It takes around 200 staff to deliver the many complexities of a modern zoo. Now, we present animals in appropriate social groups within naturalistic settings with a priority on their welfare. Through exposure to the diversity of our natural world, we seek to develop positive community attitudes toward wildlife which benefit both society and the environment.
Realising the Zoo’s modern vision has meant a great many changes. The most obvious and necessary of these was the evolution of the cement cages, bars and mesh barriers of yesteryear which fell short of the welfare standards we expect today. We tore down the elephants’ concrete jungle in favour of something closer to the real thing. We built an extensive and dramatic African habitat where once a picnic oval stood. We first moved the orangutans out of boxy cages into open exhibits and then we built towering tree-like structures to get them back up into the vertical sphere where they belong.
We did away with bars between visitor and animal and started using subtler safety barriers – moats, waterbodies and glass. Zoo-wide, we exchanged functional industrial enclosures with carefully designed, naturalistic ones designed to meet the specific physical, psychological and social needs of their inhabitants.