Story: Zoos and aquariums

Chimp tea parties and over-heated polar bears are things of the past in New Zealand’s zoos. As attitudes have changed, zoos and aquariums have been transformed from places of entertainment to venues for breeding rare animals, and educating the public about conservation.

Story by Maggy Wassilieff
Main image: Bornean orang-utans at Auckland Zoo

Story summary

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First zoos

The first zoos in New Zealand were privately owned collections of animals from overseas.

The first public zoo was started in 1906 in Wellington, by the city council. Their first animal was a lion named King Dick (after the nickname of the premier at the time). When the lion died, his body was stuffed and put on display.

Auckland Zoo opened at Western Springs in 1922.

Conditions at both zoos were not very good for the animals. They lived in concrete cages with bars, which were nothing like their natural homes. Auckland Zoo was infested with rats from the city dump across the road.

Modern zoos

Zoos started changing in the 1970s. Bigger, nicer enclosures were built, with climbing frames and ropes for monkeys and apes to play on. Zookeepers tried to keep the animals active by hiding food in their cages so they had to search for it.

Zoos started breeding endangered animals, such as red pandas and Malaysian sun bears, and native birds and animals such as kiwi.

New zoos

In 1967 two new zoos opened – Hamilton Zoo, and Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch. At Orana Wildlife Park, the animals roam freely in large enclosures, and people drive through in cars to look at them.

Zoo animals

Some of the animals usually found in New Zealand zoos are:

  • big cats such as lions, tigers and cheetahs
  • hoofed animals, like zebras, llamas, gazelles and deer
  • large animals, including elephants, giraffes, hippos, rhinos and alligators
  • monkeys and apes, like chimpanzees, baboons, lemurs and tamarins
  • birds such as peacocks and parrots
  • native birds and animals, like kiwi and tuatara.

Polar bears are no longer kept in New Zealand zoos, because they were hard to keep healthy in captivity. Wellington Zoo does not have elephants anymore, because it only has space for one, and they are happier living in groups.

One animal you will never find in a New Zealand zoo is a snake. New Zealand is a snake-free country, and not even zoos are allowed to bring them in.

Aquariums and marine parks

The performing dolphins of Marineland, in Napier, made it a popular tourist destination. Dolphins can no longer be caught from the wild, and in 2008 Marineland closed after its last dolphin closed.

Kelly Tarlton’s Antarctic Encounter and Underwater World, in Auckland, has sharks, stingrays and 2,000 fish. People walk through a plastic tunnel that goes right through the large tanks, so they get a good view of the fish and marine animals.

The National Aquarium of New Zealand, also in Napier, has turtles, tuatara and kiwi, as well as 1,500 fish.

The Southern Encounter Aquarium and Kiwi House in Christchurch has marine and freshwater animals found in and around the South Island, and also kiwi and southern bell frogs.

How to cite this page:

Maggy Wassilieff, 'Zoos and aquariums', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Maggy Wassilieff, published 24 November 2008