Changing times at Auckland Zoo

16:00, Dec 25 2012
Jonathan Wilcken
ABOUT FACE: Auckland Zoo director Jonathan Wilcken says its focus has changed dramatically in its 90-year history and is now centred around the conservation of wildlife.

Talk to any Aucklander and you're bound to elicit some memory of them having their photo taken in the mouth of Auckland Zoo's concrete dragon.

Aim for anyone over about 30 and they should be able to tell you about taking a ride on Kashin the elephant.

Go back another generation and you will probably hear stories about the chimpanzee tea-parties.

In the years since it opened on December 17, 1922, Auckland Zoo has become a staple attraction for the city.

But its story begins about a decade earlier in a suburban street in Royal Oak.

In 1911, businessman and future Auckland mayor John James Boyd bought a plot of land on Boyd Ave, off Symonds St, where he planned to set up the city's first zoological park.


He already had animal parks in Christchurch and Wanganui and despite some complaints from neighbours, and the concerns of officials, there was nothing local councils could do to stop him.

When news broke of his intention to establish a zoo in Auckland a petition against it was started on the basis that it would be a breeding ground for rats.

The petition and other objections were unsuccessful and the zoo got the go-ahead, but it was to be the beginning of a tumultuous 10-year war between Mr Boyd and the Onehunga Borough Council.

When the park opened in February 1912 it was a hit with visitors.

Not surprisingly though, it started generating complaints from neighbours.

It was very much a zoo of its time, historian Lisa Truttman says.

"He had between 600 to 2000 specimens, a lot of them would have been small birds, but in a five to seven-acre section of land it boggles the mind.

"He must have just had cages and cages upon cages," she says.

"He was breeding lions - he was breeding them until the cows came home and exporting them to America and Australia.

"That must have been a horrible, absolutely ghastly, situation."

Mr Boyd also had an on-site abattoir where he would kill horses, stray cats and calves to feed the animals.

"No wonder the neighbours complained," Ms Truttman says.

"One minute you're in this quiet, leafy, residential suburb and suddenly this animal park appears, complete with the kids and a brass band on Sundays."

Mr Boyd's zoo is surrounded by legends.

One of the most popular is the tale of a lion which escaped and wandered down Onehunga Mall before popping its head into a pub where its keeper was having a beer.

Sadly, the real story is a lot less worthy of a movie script, Ms Truttman says.

Around Christmas of 1917, at the time Mr Boyd was the mayor, a young lion cub escaped into a nearby paddock where there were some cows with their calves.

"The cows forced it back into a hedge where it was cowering through fear of these giant horned beasts when it was spotted by some servicemen on leave.

"They lassoed it like a [scene from the] Wild West and hauled it back to its cage," she says.

Ms Truttman says the story of the lion wandering down Onehunga Mall did not exist until 1966 when it appeared in a South Auckland community newspaper.

"I am surprised nobody created a story about the unloading of some lions at Onehunga wharf.

"They were loaded up into a cart and the horse bolted when the lions roared. They took off up the road, the cage tipped, and the lions ended up in the ditch," she says.

By 1919, the war over the zoo's place in Royal Oak was still raging.

With a new mayor came a bylaw banning the zoo and a system of fining Mr Boyd for every day his attraction remained open.

To avoid the fines, Mr Boyd loaded his animals on to trucks and took them on a tour of the North Island.

When he returned the fines started again and by 1921 he realised the writing was on the wall.

In June 1922, Mr Boyd asked the Auckland City Council, for the third time, if it would like to take his animals and finally his offer was accepted.

The council bought 11 lions, six bears, and two wolves for £800.

The rest of Mr Boyd's animals were sold to other zoos and private buyers.

Six months later the Auckland Zoological Park opened its gates in Western Springs.

In the early days, the park was faced with the challenge of trying to build up a collection of animals.

Business people going on overseas trips were asked to find new species and many brought some back.

By 1956, it was decided the zoo needed more of an entertainment factor and chimpanzee tea-parties were introduced.

They were stopped in the early 1960s as attitudes towards captive animals began to change, but one of the chimpanzees, Janie, is still alive and is one of the zoo's oldest residents.

The big hit in the 1970s was the arrival of Kashin the elephant and in 1981 the zoo's animal hospital opened.

Director Jonathan Wilcken says the zoo has undergone enormous change and transformation during nine colourful decades.

Today, its attention is centred around conservation.

"Zoos haven't just changed their focus a bit, they have fundamentally changed from top to bottom in terms of why we exist and what we do," Mr Wilcken says.

"The focus for leading zoos around the world is strongly and very clearly to do with wildlife conservation. All of the wildlife that we care for here in the zoo we are also promoting care for out in the wild."

The Auckland Zoo remains a centre for advancing wildlife veterinary medicine and Mr Wilcken says its vets are increasingly being called on by the Department of Conservation to help in the outdoors.

During the past decade there has also been a move towards showcasing more of New Zealand's native species.

Last year the zoo unveiled Te Wao Nui.

The $16 million precinct is the largest and most significant development in the zoo's history and houses hundreds of New Zealand native species.

Conservation and our native species look to remain the focus of the zoo for the coming decades, Mr Wilcken says.

"We've only really just started on this journey, but the more we can do this stuff the more it will build the relevance of the zoo for people."

Central Leader