Animals in New Zealand’s zoos
Large, fierce, beautiful and intelligent animals seem to hold the most appeal for zoo visitors. The main stock of zoo animals was usually a limited range of charismatic mammals and birds: elephants, giraffes, members of the cat family, monkeys, apes and parrots. Since the 1990s there has been an increased emphasis on mammals from Southern Africa, possibly due to senior zoo staff from that region.
Many groups of animals are poorly represented – just a few invertebrates such as giant wētā and tarantulas are kept. Few reptiles and amphibians, and no small mammals such as squirrels, chipmunks or moles are held. Considering how close New Zealand is to Australia, home to over 200 species of marsupial, surprisingly few marsupials have ever been kept in New Zealand – just a couple of kangaroo and wallaby species.
Snakes are completely missing from New Zealand’s zoos, because it is illegal to bring snakes into New Zealand, a snake-free country. No exceptions are made.
Favourite zoo animals
Large animals held in New Zealand’s zoos include elephants, giraffes, hippopotamuses and rhinoceros. Bisons and brown bears have been kept on occasions. Hoofed mammals such as zebras, gazelles, llamas and deer are common.
The cat family has always been well represented, with lions, tigers, cheetahs and servals held in most zoos. At various times alligators, wolves, hyenas, and African hunting dogs have been kept.
Colourful birds such as peacocks and macaws are usually on display. Some zoos have held attractive monkeys – such as golden and cotton-topped tamarins.
Chimpanzees, baboons, gibbons, lemurs and a number of types of monkey are usually present. Auckland Zoo also holds orang-utans.
New Zealand icons
Kiwi and tuatara are usually on display.
Over time, it became clear that some animals could never stay healthy in zoos. Various polar bears were kept at Auckland Zoo between 1923 and 1993, and although some lived to an old age, they all developed skin lesions, and only one cub was ever raised at the zoo.
Female Asian elephants were always popular exhibits, especially those trained to take passengers for a ride. However, in zoos they usually lived long solitary lives in confined spaces, quite unlike their natural environments. Bull elephants are extremely unpredictable and the only one to have been kept at Auckland Zoo was shot when he became unmanageable. Wellington Zoo has not kept elephants since 1983, as it lacks the space to hold more than one animal at a time and they naturally live in groups. In 2008 Auckland Zoo held two elephants – one resident for 35 years, the other for 18 years.
Zoos can be dangerous – for keepers and the public. In 1954 Auckland zookeeper Frank Lane died instantly when he was struck by an elephant’s trunk and knocked against a wall. Members of the public have been bitten and clawed after scaling safety barriers. In 1985 a man had his leg torn off by a lion at Auckland Zoo when he climbed into its enclosure after the zoo had closed.
Entertainment at the zoo
Elephant rides, miniature train rides and performances from trained animals were provided for visitor entertainment. During the 1950s zoos purchased trained chimpanzees from British zoos to perform daily tea parties. These proved very popular with visitors, but stopped by 1970, after it became impossible to acquire trained animals.
Although visitor numbers grew steadily through the 1950s and 1960s, people were changing their attitudes to how animals should be treated, and it was clear that zoos would also have to change if they were to retain public support. Zoologists studying animals in the wild were increasingly critical of the unnatural, stereotypical behaviours shown by confined animals.
People began to object to the capture and trade of animals from the wild. In 1963 Joy Adamson, a renowned conservationist and author, visited New Zealand, and her criticism of Wellington Zoo as being degrading received considerable publicity.