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Zoos and aquariums

by  Maggy Wassilieff

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.

Early zoos

Introducing animals

From the mid-19th century, acclimatisation societies brought animals into New Zealand to establish populations for hunting. They also imported some exotic curiosities such as emus, parrots, bears, monkeys and lions for public display. Their animal collections at Hagley Park in Christchurch, Wellington Botanic Gardens and the Auckland Domain were popular attractions.

Between 1909 and 1916 John Boyd ran a private zoo at Aramoho, Whanganui, which held lions, tigers, leopards, pumas, monkeys and bears. Many of his animals were purchased from Hamburg Zoo in Germany. He opened other zoos at Wainoni Park, Christchurch, 1911–12, and at Ōnehunga, Auckland, which ran from 1911 as the Royal Oak Zoological Gardens. It was forced to close in 1922 by an unsympathetic borough council. The council objected to the smells emanating from the zoo, and to it opening on Sundays.

First public zoos

In 1906 Wellington City Council established New Zealand’s first public zoo, near Newtown Park on the Wellington town belt. At first the zoo housed a single lion, but he was soon joined by a kiwi, an emu and some monkeys. By the mid-1920s the zoo held more than 600 animals, including six sea lions from the Auckland Islands, an Indian tiger and an Asian elephant.

Auckland City Council opened Auckland Zoo at Western Springs in 1922. Its collection of animals came from John Boyd’s defunct private zoo.

Lion king

The first lion at Wellington Zoo was named King Dick, which was the nickname of then premier Richard Seddon. When the lion died in 1921, its body was stuffed and displayed at the Dominion Museum.

Zoo conditions

By today’s standards, conditions at the two public zoos were appalling. Animals were confined in barred enclosures with concrete floors, and were often fed an inadequate diet. Auckland Zoo regularly flooded and rats were ever-present. Even if cleared from the zoo, the rats soon repopulated it by simply walking across the road from the city dump. Animal deaths were frequent – for example, in 1930 over a third of Auckland Zoo’s animals died.

Zoo animals and entertainment

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 mammals

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.

Fierce animals

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.

Beautiful animals

Colourful birds such as peacocks and macaws are usually on display. Some zoos have held attractive monkeys – such as golden and cotton-topped tamarins.

Intelligent animals

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.

Inappropriate species

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.

Dangerous places

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.

Changing attitudes

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.

Modernising zoos

Modern zoo practices

From the 1970s, New Zealand zoo managers began to adopt practices advocated by the world’s major public zoos.

  • More professional staff were employed, including veterinarians.
  • Staff shared their knowledge about animal welfare and zoo management in professional magazines and at conferences.
  • Captive-breeding programmes of rare and endangered animals began.
  • Zoos cooperated with exchanges of surplus animals, so fewer animals were captured directly from the wild.
  • Zoos began to educate the public about wildlife conservation and employed full-time teachers.

Spacious enclosures

The most visible change was that large animals were less likely to be confined all day in cages. At both Auckland and Wellington zoos, landscaped enclosures were designed to house and display groups of animals, giving them greater scope to move and behave freely. Instead of iron bars separating animals from people, landscaped enclosures used moats, ditches, hedges and glass walls as protective barriers. Social animals were held in groups, rather than on their own.

Zoo doo

What to do with all the poo? This is a constant problem for zoo managers. The faecal matter of large herbivores (giraffes, zebras, elephants, bisons, antelopes, llamas, rhinos, hippos and camels) is mixed with straw, composted and sold as a garden compost. The smelly, noxious waste of carnivores is dumped in landfills.

Auckland Zoo expanded onto neighbouring land in the 1970s, and at 20 hectares is able to display a greater variety of animals than Wellington Zoo, which is 13 hectares in size.

Enrichment activities

Zookeepers provide enrichment activities to keep the animals mentally and physically challenged, such as:

  • hiding food in different places in an enclosure, forcing the animals to search for it
  • putting food for monkeys and apes in plastic tubes, requiring them to probe and scoop with their fingers, using fine motor skills
  • providing live fish for otters so that they have to catch their own meal
  • providing monkeys and apes with frames and ropes for climbing and swinging.

New zoos

Two new zoos opened in 1976. Hamilton Zoo, developed by Hamilton City Council on the site of a former game-bird farm, is a spacious 25 hectares.

New Zealand’s only open-range zoo, Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch, started as a drive-through lion reserve. Visitors remained in their vehicles as they drove through a 4-hectare area with free-ranging adult lions. Over time it has expanded to occupy 80 hectares and in 2007 it held around 400 animals of 70 different species.

Captive-breeding programmes

The major zoos in New Zealand, Australia and the South Pacific cooperatively manage the breeding and exchange of animals to avoid inbreeding. New Zealand zoos have successfully bred endangered mammals such as chimpanzees, red pandas and Malaysian sun bears. However, these animals will never be returned to the wild and act only as breeding stock for other captive populations.

Increasingly, zoos have become involved with endangered native animal breeding programmes, which release native birds and reptiles back into the wild.

Zoos in the 21st century

Centre for Conservation Medicine

The changing role of a modern zoo is reflected by the work of the New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine, based at Auckland Zoo. This large facility, opened in 2006, contains a veterinary hospital, quarantine unit and research laboratories.

As well as providing health care for the zoo’s animals, staff screen and assess disease risk for native birds and reptiles that are returned to the wild. They also study the diseases that are transferred between humans and animals.

Zoo visitors

Auckland Zoo is the most popular zoo in the country, with 677,522 visitors in 2007 – three times more than Wellington Zoo and five times more than Hamilton Zoo. Auckland Zoo received publicity through the television series The zoo, based around its animals and activities.

Zoos run education programmes for primary and secondary school students, which are popular with local and visiting schools.


Auckland and Hamilton zoos are owned and managed directly by their city councils. Management of Wellington Zoo was transferred from the council to a charitable trust in 2003, primarily to raise extra funds and to develop a long-term vision for the zoo, not subject to the beliefs of individual city councillors. Wellington City Council still owns the land the zoo is on and its property. Orana Wildlife Park has always been owned and managed by a charitable trust.


Zoos and aquariums in New Zealand must comply with government acts and regulations:

  • the Animal Welfare Act 1999, and regulations outlined in the Animal Welfare (Zoos) Code of Welfare 2004, which has minimum standards for the care of zoo animals
  • the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996, which sets the standards for containment of animals in zoos, and outlines the regulations for importing new species into the country.

New Zealand’s public zoos and aquariums are members of the Australasian Regional Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria (ARAZPA). They are regularly inspected to ensure they comply with the ARAZPA code of practice, which follows guidelines set out by the World Association of Zoos and Aquaria.

Marine parks and aquariums


Marine mammals were the speciality of Napier’s Marineland. Opened in 1965, its main exhibit of performing common dolphins soon became a must-see attraction. In its first year it had 220,000 visitors, and by 1980, 3 million people had passed through its gates. Performing Californian sea lions and New Zealand fur seals were also on display.

New Zealand’s dolphins became protected animals in 1978, and Marineland was no longer allowed to capture dolphins in the wild. It closed in 2008, after the death of its remaining dolphin, and its future was in doubt.


Kelly Tarlton’s Antarctic Encounter and Underwater World opened in 1985, in Auckland. The aquarium holds around 2,000 fish from some 40 species, along with sharks and stingrays. The aquarium was constructed in disused sewerage and stormwater tanks, and visitors walk through a long acrylic tunnel within the tanks.

The National Aquarium of New Zealand opened in 2002 on the site of an older, smaller aquarium in Napier, near Marineland. It features a series of tanks and enclosures representing different marine, freshwater and terrestrial environments from around the world. As well as some 1,500 fish, it has turtles, tuatara and kiwi on display.

The Southern Encounter Aquarium and Kiwi House in Christchurch has displays of marine and freshwater animals found in and around the South Island. It was opened in 1997 and came under the management of Orana Wildlife Trust in 2000. It has a well-equipped student laboratory, which is used by school classes investigating animals in their watery environment.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Maggy Wassilieff, 'Zoos and aquariums', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

Story by Maggy Wassilieff, published 24 November 2008