Captives for our pleasure, or ambassadors for vanishing wild places?
Zoos struggle to conserve fast-disappearing species while satisfying a public thirst for nature at first hand.
I am balancing on an ice floe under a clear autumn sky. A wall of ice towers above me, frosted with icicle spears and fissured with caves. Unseen, but disturbingly close by, polar bears lie indolently, biding their time.
The scene is no nightmare—at least, not for me. Nor is it entirely as it seems. The chipped and flaking surface under my feet gives it away. As do the tractor tyre and sack plaything in the drained pool below. And, of course, Auckland Zoo keeper Anne Letham hard at work several metres beneath me, hosing out the enclosure under the idle gaze of passing visitors. Indeed, the scene’s only authenticity is contributed by Ingrid and Joachim, two ageing polar bears, mercifully locked for now in an adjacent enclosure, who have been left to end their days in this 1920s ferro-cement stage set.
Then again, ‘”left” is not a fair description. Anne, who bristles with indignation at the growing public concern over the animals’ quality of life, rests from her labours long enough to point out that her charges, both over 30, would have lived perhaps 25 years in the wild. Ingrid was taken by the zoo as an act of charity when her enclosure in Australia’s Taronga Zoo, long closed to the public, was earmarked for demolition.
A recently introduced behavioural enrichment programme, designed to minimise stereotypic behaviour such as the endless pacing and head banging common among captive polar bears, has helped, she says. The animals no longer have set feeding times, and are often given live fish to catch, or food frozen in blocks of ice, and “toys” such as plastic buckets, to help fight boredom.
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Later, watching Anne methodically lace dog rolls with medications for Joachim’s heart condition and Ingrid’s suspected arthritis, then smear the concoctions with honey, it is hard to imagine more devoted caregiving.
“People have this idea that we are mad jailers,” she says, adding that most public distrust is based on ignorance. Take the colour of their pool water, for instance. Freshly filled mere hours ago, the holding enclosure, once home to black bears, already looks slimy and neglected. Algal bloom from the nearby water source in Western Springs is to blame. Algae also get into the hairs of the animals’ furhollow to conserve heat in the wildgiving their coats the unwholesome greenish patina of ancient river boulders.
Nature tip: the hairs of polar bears are transparent, and appear white as a result of reflected sunlight. More bizarre, their skin is actually black to help absorb heat from the Arctic sun.
Though Anne would defend replacing Joachim and Ingrid when they die, the zoo’s intention is to phase out polar bears in favour of creatures from Asia and the Pacific. The zoo is gradually increasing its holding of New Zealand species from 27 to 58—one third of its collection—and is active in local conservation. It supports the Department of Conservation’s kakapo recovery programme by developing incubation and rearing techniques, for example, and acts as a sanctuary for tuatara while islands are cleared of the rats threatening their survival.
When former director Derek Wood was offered two polar bear cubs by the Canadian Commonwealth Games Committee in 1987, he detailed for the Council the unpleasant history of the species at the zoo. This included cub deaths, the probable shooting of an escaping animal in years past, and a nagging though controllable skin complaint caused by the bites of stomoxys flies.
Polar bears are not yet an endangered species, so would play no part in a conservation programme, and to build a suitable refrigerated enclosure for mere public spectacle does not sit well with zoo authorities in this pinched and consciencestricken age.
As I guiltily lay aside a spade which I helped Anne break in the fruitless task of prizing a log from a blocked drain—keepers’ tools: hose, rake, shovel, are seemingly timeless—she sums up her work conditions. Two weekends on, two off, and two seven-day stretches of 8 AM to 4.30 PM for a base salary of under $25,000 a year.
“I find it irritating that people question what we do. The animals are the only reason I’m here,” she says. “It’s a job where you get the most highs and the most lows of your life.”
Disaffection caused by perceived shortcomings in animal care has contributed to a high staff turnover at the zoo, though those, like Anne Letham, who remain, say the animals are best served by having friends inside the zoo gates.
“Whatever our views, we all feel committed to the animals,” says primate head keeper Peter West. “That is why the place has so much politics.”
Keepers these days are happy to make extra work for themselves to give a better quality of life to the creatures in their care, he adds. Attitudes have also changed among management.
“We have a legacy to deal with, but there is no longer a stamp-collecting mentality—one of each kind. This is not a pet shop or a museum.”
Urban zoos, however, are as expensive to run as museums. Despite Auckland’s annual $1 million operating subsidy, plus a further $1 million of development money, keepers are frustrated that more is not spent on the animals. Some are upset at funds diverted to such non-essential ends as the recarpeting of offices and the erection of flagstaffs at the zoo’s entrance.
It has never been easy to reconcile the abstract world of finance with the needs of living things. What might be regarded as a founding myth of Auckland Zoo shows how strong the mortar of emotion has always been.
In the early 1920s, there was a question mark over the fate of animals in a private zoo run by John Boyd. At a Town Hall “sing song,” the Reverend Jasper Calder suddenly announced that he had a visitor who was strongly in favour of an Auckland zoo. He then caused a sensation by theatrically producing a lion cub and bellowing “I appeal to you to save this from the butcher’s knife, and to give it a nice comfortable home.” (Thunderous applause).
Since then the butchers’ knives, in the form of lost habitats, have multiplied, though the comfort of zoo homes is less taken for granted.
“I’m hoping we are all working to close zoos down,” says West bluntly, over a strong tea in the staff canteen. “Otherwise we may as well go out and shoot the gorillas before someone else gets them.” He juts his beard at Anne Letham. “Or kill the polar bears before toxic waste does.”
Gorillas are on everyone’s mind this morning. The day’s newspaper carries a report of threats to the survival of the world’s last mountain gorillas, made famous by the late Dian Fossey and the Hollywood film of her work, Gorillas in the Mist. The civil war raging in the African state of Rwanda had forced thousands of people to flee into the mountain refuge of the animals, and the evacuation of western veterinarians had left the gorillas at the mercy of poachers and disease.
West, an old zoo hand with 14 years’ experience, believes the main aim of a zoo must be to educate people about the need to save animals in the wild. “Once people start protecting the animals’ true homes, we won’t need zoos,” he says. However, for him, the events in Rwanda prove the wisdom of a back-up strategy for survival.
When animal numbers get too low, or habitat too constricted, animals are prey to fatal natural or human disasters, and extinction follows. Unbelievably, it happened less than a decade ago with the Javan tiger. Some conservationists were adamant the species should be preserved in nature, but one day zoologists realised not one of the animals remained. The species had died out.
Auckland Zoo senior curator, Swiss-born Richard Jakob-Hoff, says zoos are learning to work together worldwide through professional organisations such as ARAZPA, the Australasian Regional Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria, to avoid such tragedies.
The recently launched World Zoo Conservation Strategy, an initiative of the World Zoo Organisation and the Captive Breeding Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union, provides a framework of goals and opportunities based on the unique facilities of zoos, says Jakob-Hoff.
The strategy document suggests that a minimum of 250 to 500 individuals are needed to ensure the long-term genetic variability of a species, and calculates that, based on the one million animals held in 1000 member zoos worldwide, the zoo community can support healthy populations of 1000 to 2000 species.
If these are key species, it adds, the conservation effect will outweigh the relatively insignificant numbers involved—particularly if, as “ambassadors,” the animals can raise public interest in the protection of their natural environments.
What it doesn’t make plain is that some 1000 bird species and an equal number of mammal species are already on the brink of extinction, and that only 45 per cent of these mammals and 12 per cent of the birds are currently in zoos.
However, the report goes on to paint a hopeful picture of animal survival based on artificial reproduction, cryopreservation (frozen genetic reservoirs) and the interactive management of captive and wild populations. It is heady stuff, but Jakob-Hoff for one draws comfort from the scenario.
“It is important for a zoo like Auckland, built in 1922, to say, ‘These are our goals. This is where we would like to go’,” he says.
Sure, there are residues from the past, he admits—including three ageing tea-party chimps brought out from Britain in the 1950s and now too neurotic to mix with younger chimps. Overweight from years of being fed by the public, they remain behind bars in old-style cages.
Better things are on the drawing board. West becomes animated describing plans for a large-scale tropical rainforest exhibit due to open at Christmas 1995. Designed to house many primate species, including gibbons, bonnet macaques, siamangs and tamarins, it will feature raised walkways and an information centre.
As a sign of the broader regional vision of New Zealand zoos, Jakob-Hoff points to international efforts to save the Sumatran rhinoceros. Computer models have shown that captive breeding would not help the species in the short-term, so attempts are being made to save them in their natural habitats. Those for whom that is not possible are to be taken to secure captive environments in the rainforest.
To do that successfully, says Jakob-Hoff, conservation staff must draw on animal identification techniques, nutritional analysis and animal care procedures developed for captive animals in zoos.
Despite the noble intentions, the management practice of New Zealand Zoos has come under fire. Among Auckland’s most vocal critics are former zoo staff who, along with others, have formed a local branch of the international animal watchdog organisation Zoo Check, the first outside Europe.
They paint a picture of badly conceived enclosures, flawed breeding programmes and deliberate misinformation by zoo management.
The controversial polar bear exhibit is just one prominent landmark of public disaffection for an embattled zoo which describes itself as being in a state of transition toward a new conservation ethic. Detractors remain unconvinced.
“Orang-utans live in rainforests, not on telegraph poles in grass fields,” quips former primate keeper Duncan Emerson, referring to the pine pole and chain structures adorning one of Auckland’s newer enclosures. He says that despite the Bornean orang-utans’ solitary lives in the wild, six of them now live together in captivity.
When a pregnant female with a persistent groin infection was taken to the Auckland Radiology Group’s Epsom clinic for a CAT scan in March—a first for Auckland Zoo—the infection was blamed on a grass seed lodged under the skin.
What staff didn’t reveal, says Emerson, was that other males had aggravated the wound by repeatedly attempting to mate with her. It is just one of the many stress fractures in the social lives of captive animals.
The zoo’s female hippopotamus has been separated to prevent the males from killing her, he says. Several years ago one hippo had a stillbirth, blamed on genetic problems caused by interbreeding. Since then, several attempts at birth control have been made, including the neutering of adolescent males, one of whom died as a result, and for females, contraceptive pills and injections to induce abortions. Despite such measures, a female managed to give birth two years ago. The baby was killed by zoo staff to prevent it being killed by other hippos—the fate of six hippos in recent years.
The death prompted emotional calls for an animal ethics committee to monitor the use of animals for research and teaching. A five-person committee has now been established.
Two of the zoo’s star attractions, the elephants Burma and Kashin, have also had their share of controversy. Rainforest animals, they now live in a quarter-acre ersatz plains environment.
This new $1.8 million enclosure is symptomatic of the drain zoos impose on the money available for conservation projects, says Zoo Check’s Allan Gatland, who was once acting head of Auckland Zoo’s carnivore section. He claims the African-based animal welfare organisation Elefriends has a better track record of assisting elephant survival by spending money in the field.
Kashin has arthritis, says Emerson, who is worried about possible plans to artificially inseminate her. “I’d like to see zoos admit they can’t keep elephants adequately in captivity.”
Derek Wood prefers the term “protective custody.” However, he agrees that despite improvements in animal care, zoos are still in the show business industry. They must, in other words, actively promote themselves and compete with other forms of entertainment to survive.
Wood doubts that society would adequately support zoos involved solely in conservation, claiming the whole style of those zoos would inevitably change. He also cautions that zoos must not oversell what they are capable of.
The first priority, he says, must be to protect or re-establish a species’ natural environment, and zoo programmes must always be subsidiary to that goal, not a substitute for it.
“In a zoo, we give animals the Welfare State, with all that implies. We deprive them of the ability to kill and be killed. We remove the possibility of all the good and bad they experience at the hands of other animals.”
One of Wood’s unfulfilled dreams was to establish a breeding farm for larger zoo animals in rural Auckland, which could then evolve into a rural animal park.
Initially a satellite of Auckland Zoo, it would not have public access, so would not need expensive offices, toilet blocks, cafeterias and carparks.
Being large, it would offer animals such as giraffe and rhinos the space to nurture their mental health.
Despite being widely adopted overseas—in Melbourne and Sydney, for instance—the concept was greeted halfheartedly by a council preoccupied with the need for a new public entertainment complex—which was later to materialise as the Aotea Centre.
“The question is: can a small municipal zoo in the centre of a city fulfil its conservation goals without something like that?” asks Wood.
Laura Mumaw, the zoo’s current director, believes it can. As communication and cooperation between zoos increases, the pressure eases for each zoo to see itself as a self-sufficient breeding centre. “It’s a case of each zoo focusing on what it does best, and jointly managing its animal collections for conservation,” she says. “Auckland doesn’t have a huge acreage for raising hoofstock, but other zoos do. Why should we duplicate what they are doing? We have chosen to put our efforts into native birds, an area for which we are well equipped, in both facilities and expertise.”
Such specialisation, however, hasn’t spelt the end of larger beasts at Auckland, such as elephants and rhinos—and the questions their continued presence raises.
Further south is a new-generation zoo, one with less past to apologise for, and no iron bars in sight.
Orana Park Wildlife Trust, a few minutes’ drive from Christchurch’s international airport, is the most recent of New Zealand’s three major zoos. The only one with no significant ratepayer support, it has an entrepreneurial, rather than institutional, air.
The policy of its director Paul Garland, who has masterminded fundraising, is to “spend both sides of every dollar.” He boasts that, to date, capital development costs have barely reached $2 million, thanks to strong business and community support and the use of inexpensive construction materials and volunteer labour.
Dating from an idea seeded in 1970, when enthusiasts bent on creating a wildlife park formed the South Island Zoological Society, Orana Park became a reality six years later. Unlike its sister zoos, Orana has room to breathe-80 hectares of it—and planners have taken advantage of the space to create a drive-through park built around large vista displays.
The morning I arrive, curtains of drizzle fall lazily across the broad riverbed from which Orana Park has been carved and contoured. Over a million cubic metres of earth were shifted to create gentle hillocks and serpentine lakes which then filled naturally with artesian water. Thatched viewing towers on rough-hewn stilts and plantings of acacias and proteas give a flavour of the African plains original on which much of the park is modelled.
For up to 16 hours each day the animals are rested in a huge patchwork of offexhibition fields and marshalling pens. It is as though some generous dairy farmer had been pressed to lend a hand with the conservation of these herd creatures.
I drive along deserted gravel roads past paddocks of waterbuck, zebras, giraffes, an island of diminutive patas monkeys, and pull in beside an enormous field. Ten metres away two white rhinos stand motionless, the rain falling off their armoured hides. One bends its head toward me. An ear flicks. It looks away.
Nothing lies between me and these breathtaking animals but a narrow sheet of water. The atmosphere of solitude and disinterested calm is mesmerising; what . nature writer Charles Siebert has called “the full, muted, weighty presence of things.”
Surprisingly, without iron bars and concrete and stern danger warnings the animals don’t look fierce or dangerous so much as, well, natural.
Not that they couldn’t get out if they put their mind to it, despite the barriers and electric fences. The waterbuck did. As do spider monkeys on occasion—though, being sociable animals, they quickly become preoccupied with getting back in. Two scimitar-horned oryx vacated their enclosure when the dominant male began taking his dominant role too seriously, and the rhinos once waded free and trampled over Garland’s private garden. Their moat has since been deepened.
By and large, escaped hoofstock are not a problem. They content themselves with grazing on roadside grass and are readily herded back—Orana is no Jurassic Park. The trick, says curator Joe Christman, is to match the temperament of the animals. On the African plains, those which don’t get on avoid bloodshed by putting some distance between each other. That is not always possible at Orana, despite its generous acreage.
Zebras, whose docile appearance belies their aggression, can act unpredictably, despite the best precautions. This was highlighted by an unfortunate incident in which a stroppy stallion attacked a rhino and was killed by it.
Even more upsetting for Orana staff was the death by a resident male of a female rhino newly arrived from Auckland zoo. The female, which had been trying to flee the mating attentions of the male, drowned in the moat. In the vast open spaces of Africa it almost certainly would have lived.
Though rhinos are highly sensitive to tranquilliser—one fifth of the standard antelope dose will lay a rhino out—they combine immense power with remarkable agility and are capable of hurling their three-and-a-half tonnes forward at up to 40 kph.
On Christman’s office wall is a square of three-quarter-inch ply from a shipping cage, splintered and punched through—the work of a young female testing her confinement.
“They know exactly how long that horn is and where it’s going,” he says. “They could probably poke flies with it.”
Next to the punished timber is a photograph of Christman flanked by elephants, a reminder of the American’s nine years at Dallas Zoo. Elephants, he informs me, have been responsible for the deaths of more keepers worldwide than any other captive animal. It is an understandable enough statistic, given that keepers work alongside them a great deal, and that an accidental crushing, for one thing, would be all too easy.
Even chimps, those old tea-party favourites, each have the strength of five large humans and would have no difficulty tearing a keeper’s limbs. There are no chimps at Orana, but Auckland’s Peter West acknowledges that his chimps have smashed 10 mm bullet-proof glass, and Wellington keepers delight in displaying a heavy iron bar bent like a pipe-cleaner by one of their charges. All of which supports an unwritten zoo law: “Know your animal.”
Nowhere is this more necessary than at Orana Park’s chief crowd-puller, its drive-in African lion reserve, where daily feeding of the animals from a mobile cage regularly fills the amphitheatre.
Despite danger signs, clear printed instructions and loudspeaker warnings for visitors inside the reserve to under no circumstances leave their vehicles, people do. The day I nudge into a parking space alongside hundreds of other red-meat aficionados, the human death instinct grips a couple in the next car. Having allowed their two-year-old daughter to relieve herself on the gravel next to the rear wheel they hoist her aboard and lock the door with a sheepish grin. The lions, fortunately, are more interested in the Landrover hauling their meal.
Garland turns pale at such reports. Stories circulate among zoos of individuals stripping and jumping with drug-induced confidence into bear pens, or martial arts practitioners attempting to prove their mastery over lions, with fatal consequences.
Derek Wood once spent hours talking a young woman off a rail above Auckland’s polar bear enclosure. But the unpredictable behaviour of human families among wild lions—lions familiar with, and therefore no longer wary of, people—is the stuff of nightmare.
Plans are well advanced for a new savanna enclosure which will display Orana’s lions against a backdrop of zebras and gazelles. Visitors will be able to cross the lion habitat on a raised walkway and descend into a cave where the animals can be viewed through a wall of glass.
Garland admits that dispensing with the reserve’s gladiatorial shows may initially dent attendance figures—a sizable number of enquiries from the public concern lion feeding times—but he says safety and education come first.
Orana Las pioneered other entertainment, including what it calls “twilight safaris” where, over the summer months, visitors can meet after hours for guided tours of the park. The evening begins with a meal at the park’s restaurant overlooking a South Island Serengeti. The experience is a Kiwi version of African wildlife tours where people eat near waterholes frequented by the animals.
Twilight visitors then feed giraffes, get as near as anyone would wish to rhinos and see cheetahs sprint for their dinner. They even get to watch staff row over to a nearby island to hand-feed ringtailed lemurs which are being bred as part of an Australasian Species Management Programme. And all this to the informative banter of a knowledgeable keeper.
An air of quiet majesty comes over exotic animals at dusk; as though with nightfall they let go the last threads of the familiar with which captivity and mundane daytime activity drape them. Perhaps it is nothing more than the vibrancy of a strange occasion and an unusual hour.
Whatever it is, up to 200 people a night at the height of the season get to witness it, and Orana has plans to take the experience a step further by introducing night feeding of its lions. This world-first depends on the purchase of sophisticated lighting, for which an ambitious fundraising campaign has been launched.
Such an approach makes sense behaviourally, with 40 per cent of lion kills made at night, and the remainder mostly at dusk or in the early morning.
“By world standards, we are small, so we have to be innovative,” says Garland. “If you don’t show off what you are doing, how can you expect people to know zoos are changing. For many people, conservation is a black hole that consumes money.”
Orana competes with other Christchurch attractions like the Antarctic centre, the gondola and the science centre, but what has hurt zoo attendance most, Garland believes, has been the introduction of Sunday shopping.
Some animal species introductions have been made expressly to increase gate takings, such as the meerkats brought in from Toledo zoo in December 1991. The strategy worked, with 40,000 people visiting the park in January—a 60 per cent increase over the previous year. But a leaflet describing their introduction as “part of a planned conservation programme” is misleading. It is hard to see how the animals, which are all neutered males, could make a useful contribution to furthering the species.
All three zoos have built meerkat enclosures, with varying degrees of artistry, thanks to sponsorship by Telecom. in whose television advertisements they first appeared. It is. says Zoo Check, the very worst of reasons for keeping animals in captivity.
The issue, however, is parenthetical for Orana, which has as its focus the conservation of native New Zealand and African savanna fauna.
Among others, it has breeding programmes for the yellowhead and the North Island kiwi, and was the first zoo in the country to breed the New Zealand wood pigeon. Orana Park also has in train an off-display captive breeding programme for both the Otago and the grand skinks.
It hopes to get South Island kakas, having successfully bred the North Island subspecies for several years.
Orana has also had success with its international programmes, and was the first institution in the world to successfully perform artificial insemination on scimitar-horned oryx—believed extinct in the wild—greatly increasing the ability to integrate genetic variations from populations elsewhere in the world.
Rothschild giraffes. the smallest and most at-risk of the seven subspecies, are also cared for by Orana staff as part of an international captive breeding programme. There are fewer than 600 of these giraffes left on their home range in Kenya and Uganda and migration into the area by other subspecies is causing hybridisation.
During my visit, Joe Christman is preoccupied with the mechanics of flying out a young male from Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo as a potential herd sire to join the park’s four female Rothschilds. It has taken two years of searching to find a suitable breeding male.
Born in July 1993, the animal, Harold, is already nearly three metres tall, and Christman calculates the zoo has at most several months in which to organise transit before the animal grows too big to fit inside an aircraft—giraffes do not travel well by ship.
Christman catalogues the difficulties to date: The crate was too big—by two inches—to fit on the plane, a vital blood test, scheduled for the day quarantine was to begin, was taken the previous day. Harold was 38 feet from other animals, whereas quarantine regulations stipulated 40 feet …
“This sort of thing goes on daily for about six weeks until the animal is shipped,” says Christman. “Then MAF will sometimes change an import regulation without notice.”
Once, he says, an outbreak of mad cow disease brought an iron curtain down on animal imports from Europe. Two giraffes en route to Auckland from Britain had to be diverted to Perth. By the time the importation path was smoothed they had grown too big.
If hauling endangered animals around the globe is no easy task logistically, neither is it cheap. Operation Harold carried a $50,000 price tag. even though the giraffe itself was gifted.
One of the most significant events at Orana has been the birth of its first cheetah litter. With the wild population down to a few thousand animals, Orana staff questioned zoos involved in the breeding programme to discover the factors most likely to help reproduction. The survey showed key conditions included privacy, space and stimulation.
As a result, the cheetahs were housed as far as possible from the lions in specially built facilities which included secure quarters for pregnant females, and an elongated enclosure in which “sprint” food could be attached to a high-speed winch.
Though Wellington Zoo would also like to breed cheetahs, it does not have the necessary space. Nor is its cramped and hilly Newtown site suitable for hoofed stock, so Wellington concentrates on primates and birds.
Tight financial constraints—which forced a 10 per cent reduction in staff last year—combined with the high cost of building stable enclosures on the sloping terrain, have put limits on the zoo’s ambitions. As has its formal relationship with Wellington City Council.
“We come under the recreational department, and that is their focus. They want to know things like how many people we got through the gate,” says director Kerry Muller. “That comes third on my list behind conservation and education.”
Since Muller’s arrival from San Diego in 1984 some progress has been made. The rusty cages have largely gone, replaced by a new primate enclosure and, for the lions, a kopje exhibit (pronounced ko-pie), modelled on African rock outcrops.
In its endless struggle to boost earnings, the zoo has also turned to innovative schemes such as the selling of unwanted byproducts it formerly paid to have carted away. “Zoodoo,” a compost made from giraffe, bison, zebra, llama, pony and camel manure mixed with straw, lawn clippings and bark, is available to avid gardeners by the sackful.
Auckland Zoo is to follow suit with a jumbo scheme which incorporates elephant and rhinoceros dung. Each elephant can produce up to 100 kg of “product” a day, but with the manure retailed in 40 kg bags, the market is unlikely to be flooded. For public health reasons the droppings of primates and carnivores will not be used.
The biggest changes, however, are in the realm of zoo philosophy. Muller says a long-term objective is to acquire at-risk species as the more common zoo specimens die. An ageing leopard has already made way for rarer Himalayan snow leopards, and the zoo’s Siberian tiger is now in Adelaide, following the decision to concentrate on the less common Sumatran tiger.
In March this year, after a year-long search, an 18-month-old female Sumatran tiger arrived from Holland’s Arnhem Zoo as a potential breeding partner for Wellington’s five year old male, Jambi.
Though Wellington has had success with other big cats, disaster struck last May, when Jambi killed his mate. Zoo staff, now more cautious, plan on allowing a long, slow courtship to reduce the likelihood of a repeat catastrophe.
The process of finding suitable animals for the zoo’s breeding programmes has been simplified now the zoo is linked to the International Species Inventory System (ISIS), a computerised database of 60,000 living animals which records details of their family histories.
Only two endangered New Zealand species on which such records are kept are sent from this country for overseas zoos: brown kiwis and tuataras—though keas are also bred in the United States.
“You have to be careful what you send out,” says Muller. “Diseases in the United States and elsewhere mean we can’t get the birds back, so you have to write them off any breeding programme for reintroduction into the wild in New Zealand.”
The restrictions do not apply to tuataras or to insects such as wetas.
Zoos here are also limited in what can be brought in. A law dating from the nineteenth century prevents the importation of snakes, and there are also bans on squirrels, foxes and mongooses.
Even domestic movements are closely monitored. Every egg and carcass, every animal or creature with feathers that enters or leaves New Zealand zoos must have MAF approval.
Despite such controls, zoos are not sealed capsules.
“New keepers sometimes think they are doing a marvellous job by scrubbing and cleaning the cages,” says head keeper Frank Coles. “But zoo life goes on for another 16 hours each day after they leave. Birds, rats, hedgehogs, feral cats all bring in contamination from outside.”
Sometimes people break in after hours to roam the paths—out of curiosity, to beat a dare, or for more sinister reasons. At the time of writing, Auckland Zoo was still reeling from the overnight theft of five South American parrots, collectively worth $4000 and almost certainly stolen to order for a private collector.
Human intrusion is sometimes also responsible for animal deaths and injury resulting from what zoos label “night fright.” Even outside disturbances can terrorise the animals, as when one of Auckland’s giraffes, frightened by fireworks one particularly noisy Guy Fawkes, ran into a fence and damaged its neck. Despite a determined effort to save it, the animal had to be put down. Local bylaws now restrict such activities near zoo perimeters.
To reduce the incidence of disease, zoos ask visitors not to feed the animals. The mere bite of a proffered apple can plunge a creature into a fallen world of unfamiliar diseases against which it has no natural defences. Public feeding may also upset natural hierarchies. A dominant animal will often physically punish a subordinate which has taken food from outsiders, to pull it back in line. Additional food is unnecessary anyway, staff claim, given the balanced diets now available.
It was not always the case. Zoos often made do by offering economical fodder such as the discards of bakeries. Coles, who has worked at Wellington Zoo for 40 years and whose father was head keeper before him, recalls the days when keepers slaughtered horses for their charges. A herd of 30 to 40 animals was kept on 300 acres in the town belt. There were no cooking facilities, and the only storage was in a meat safe.
“Come Christmas we would kill four at once, and by the time we got to use the last one it would just about be walking away. Before the public feedings, we had to hose the maggots off.”
Meat and fish aside, the annual fruit and vegetable bill alone at Wellington tops $65,000, despite sources of cheap produce from the local markets.
As Coles sorts through $1-a-box reject pears on the back of his truck, I notice his damaged hand.
“A sick orang-utan took exception to me once, and I lost a finger,” he says matterof-factly. “In hindsight, I shouldn’t have gone in with a full-grown male, but back then we didn’t have drugs to help with restraint.”
The incident is typical of the harsher side of zoo life which keepers tend to see. Often, limited space is the trigger for aggression. Zoo animals are hard-pressed to get out of each other’s way; to avoid the bow-wave of territoriality that the mere act of moving around sets up.
It has been said that preserving a handful of species in zoos is mostly about meeting an emotional need we humans have; an instinct for the return to primeval nature, to the refuge of our spirit. It is not an easy thought to live with.
Neither is the knowledge that no matter how skilfully we gild their cages with trees and waterfalls, the animals remain prisoners and exiles.
“No keeper likes having animals in captivity,” says Frank Coles, surveying Newtown’s urban roofscape.
He chews over with me the fashionable view of zoos as modern arks, and the ambitious plans to restock the wild with captive-bred animals in ten, fifty, a hundred years’ time. But it is unclear to either of us just how much wild will be around.
“When you think about it,” says Frank after a silence, “there aren’t a lot of places out there for them to go back to ….”
Together we look over the built-up hills and into the bay, out across the harbour and onward it seems over the whole tilting, spinning planet, our eyes running blind, like fingers through grass for a lost jewel.