I love the zoo. Always have. Always will. It’s a bit of a controversial view point in my family, because Jeri (my Wife) hates them, and I understand why.
I’m not talking about zoos that house Big Cats in small squalid cages, stressed animals wearing tracks in the cement floors as they pace endlessly in a mindless routine that is tantamount to psychological torture. I’m not talking about zoos that buy baby animals from factory farms because cute babies keep turnstiles humming and revenues climbing, while they euthanize older animals that are past their view by date to make room for the crowd pulling infants (this does happen). I’m talking about a zoo that put’s the welfare of it’s animals, and the welfare of the species as a whole, first in it’s priorities. And the Melbourne zoo is one of these organizations.
I think it’s not only a day of immense pleasure to visit these institutions, but it’s a duty. To support these zoos so that they can continue their work in preservation and research benefiting the animals they house is a noble cause, and the ability to see and interact with some of the Earths more amazing inhabitants, is icing on the cake. The Melbourne Zoo in particular imports and sells crafts made by villagers on the fringes of wild animal habitat, so that it can help provide a source of income, turning the relationship into a valuable resource for these communities so that they, in turn, see the benefit in preserving the wild habitats. It’s the kind of evolution in thinking that will make a difference in the survival of many endangered species.
I remember going to the Melbourne Zoo as a child, and it’s exhibits weren’t all something to be proud of. In the past 35 years the zoo has changed as our knowledge of animal welfare and husbandry has changed, and it is in part this evolution of the Zoo that has fueled my interest in animals and drives my passion for zoos. It doesn’t matter how often you go to the Zoo, and I am speaking specifically of the Melbourne Zoo, there is always something new and different to see. Not just with new state of the art exhibits and displays (of which there were), but even during different seasons, or even from one day to the next, the animals are acting differently, so that if you visit again and again, you will always have a different experience.
If you haven’t guessed, today I went to the Melbourne Zoo.
Well, to be more accurate, Bailey and I went to the Zoo. The day beckoned bright and clear, with barely a cloud in the sky. We arrived as the Zzoo was opening, which meant the day was still nice and cool, and that the crowds had not arrived. Both definitely a great bonus. In addition, we find out that kids are admitted free on School Holidays! That means the 5 hour visit cost us less than $5 an hour. That’s pretty cheap entertainment. You should go. Wait…finish the blog first.
We enter the Zoo, and much to Bailey’s delight, the first exhibit you see (if you turn right from the main entrance) is the Meerkats. Bailey’s love of Meerkats is second only to his love of Penguins, and the visit to the Zoo could not have started any better. Who could not love Meerkats though. Even before Timon graced the silver screens as the sidekick to Simba , the Meerkats at the Zoo standing rigidly to attention and scurrying around the exhibit interacting with each other was always a crowd favourite.
Late Spring in Melbourne means many of the local animals are giving birth, and it was amazing to see the number of non-caged residents (I call them volunteers), especially the birds, living in the Zoo. Parent birds leading groups of young around, oblivious to the human foot traffic, just shows the level of comfort these animals have in the Zoo environment. Ducks and Peacocks were being chased by small furry offspring, weaving in and out of people without fear, everywhere you turned.
The next exhibit proves that Drop Bears exist, in my opinion. I mean, if you can have such a thing as a Tree Kangaroo, then surely a Drop Bear is not so far fetched!
I remember one of my earlier visits to the Zoo as a child because the Zoo had just received from China some Pandas. With great excitement we braved the crowds to look at these rare and exotic creatures, only to find a small red raccoon type animal staring back at us from high in the tree tops. I remember the deep sense of disappointment I felt at not seeing a Black and White Panda Bear, and I still can’t walk past the poor Red Panda without just a little bitterness. Maybe I hold a grudge too long, and maybe it’s not even his fault, but still, I was just a kid and the emotional wounds obviously cut deep that day. Stupid Red Panda, looking down on me, mocking me.
I want to go on the record to say that the name “Little Penguins” is the lamest species name I think I have ever heard. Come on people of the zoological world, couldn’t you have come up with something better? I grew up calling these things Fairy Penguins, and until someone comes up with something better, I am just going to have to keep calling them Fairy Penguins.
I remember swimming near Rosebud at a pier somewhere, I must have only been 8 or 9 years old, and people from the pier were pointing at me and yelling incoherently. Even at that young age, I immediately went cold and thought “Shark”, and the adrenalin shot through my body as I spun around in fright. I caught the movement only a metre or so from me, and there was a Fairy Penguin bobbing around beside me, enjoying the cooling waters of Port Phillip Bay on a sweltering summer day.
Rafts of these amazing little birds waddle inelegantly up the beach at Phillip Island, seemingly oblivious to the thousands of onlookers nightly as they navigate their way past the crowds and boardwalks to their burrows above the high tide mark.
Fairy Penguins are not an uncommon sight around Melbourne, and there are better places to see them than the Zoo, yet the Zoo still performs a vital task even in this exhibit. The Zoo hosts sick and injured penguins rescued from the wild, and rehabilitated in many cases before being released, so the value of their Penguin exhibits (there are more than 1) are not to be understated. The Fairy Penguins are the next exhibit we come across.
One of the things often overlooked at the Zoo, is the fact that it is a Zoological Garden, and that great pains are taken in their flora, as well as fauna. Plantings often reflect the home ranges of the near by exhibits, or even just a specific theme for study and reflection. One such garden exhibit is the stunning Japanese Garden. Flanking the Ornamental Lake and the Lakeside Bistro, the Japanese Garden was built in 1990 and invites a peaceful contemplation as you stroll around it’s meandering pathways.
The Garden itself is a delight to all senses. I love just sitting on the grass and closing my eyes, focussing on each of my other senses individually on the experience. I try to pick out individual sounds; water, birds, insects, wind and then let them come together in an orchestral cacophony. It makes for a very serene and meditative experience.
As well as a location for some quiet respite, the Japanese Garden provides for some of the best views of the Ornamental Lake and it’s inhabitants, as well as Lemur Island beyond.
In the distance, we can hear the guttural roar of the Lions, and we find ourselves pausing briefly at the other exhibits as we head toward the King of the Jungle. The Lion enclosure is one of the oldest displays at the Zoo, but it’s flyover gives great visibility of what is a large space for the pride to live. It looks it’s age, with wire fencing where today’s exhibits use glass or perspex, but the animals seem to be relaxed and healthy. I’ve always loved this part of the zoo, especially with the Hunting Dogs on the other side of the flyover from the Lions, though I have never really been to enamored by the Small Cats walk. A less lively bunch of animals I think I have never seen.
Have you ever encountered that annoying reptile nerd that walks around the reptile exhibits, loudly and proudly naming each species and their associated characteristics, before explaining to anyone who will listen about their toxicity and the environment in which they live? Well, that’s me, and after the Lions we head toward the Reptile House. I love snakes and all things reptiles, and I could easily spend several hours in the Reptile House, despite the fact that I’ve been in there on at least a dozen occasions, and I know the exhibit so well I can identify each species in there without use of the signs. It makes no difference to me, the Reptile House is something I would dearly love to have in my own back yard. Sadly, I am reduced to shuffling Zombie like from window to window, naming each animal out loud to any who are within earshot. By the way, here is a lovely picture of a Death Adder, which incidentally is not a true viper. Watch out for this guy, he’s an ambush predator, which means he won’t move out of your way like most other Australian venomous snakes…
During this visit to the Zoo there were three new displays that really stood out for me. Once of these was the next stop on our exploration, the new Wild Sea exhibit. It houses the Seals in a brand new, state of the art, wave pool. The waves generated by the pool crash against artificial rocks, and are so powerful that the seals use the pressure waves to “surf” just below the surface of the water.
Again the work of the Zoo proves vital to the local wild population, with all of the seals on display rescued animals from nearby waters. One in particular, Silva, has been at the Zoo for 20 years, and has a clearly visible scar around her neck. She was found tangled with a small piece of discarded fishing net that had been there so long, it had cut into her as she grew.
As well as the Seals, the Wild Sea exhibit houses the main Penguin enclosure. There is also a large indoor area with underwater viewing windows to watch the seals and penguins in their respective pools. In addition, there is a large Fiddler Ray pool and several fish tanks with local species of Marine life, including some stunningly odd Sea Horses.
If there is a weirder creature in the Sea, I do not know of it. How is it possible that these delicate and slow moving creatures evolved as the fittest and strongest? Bizarre though they are, they are very captivating to watch.
The second new exhibit that caught my imagination was the water plant. The Zoo has also chosen to turn their recycling and water treatment plant into an exhibit of sorts, and what an amazing thing it is to see. It’s a great educational tool, showing not only what the Zoo is doing to reduce it’s carbon footprint, and it’s water use, but ways in which we can do the same at home. If you are visiting the Zoo, do not dismiss this as a non-exhibit. Spend some time and get inspired, as I did.
From the Water Plant you walk through some of the older exhibits in the Zoo. It includes the inevitable Aussie Outback trail, with ubiquitous Kangaroos, as well as Emus, Wombats, Echidnas and Koalas.
Then it’s the African Plains Animals, well at least those that have not been relocated to the Werribee Plains Zoo, and after that the Great Flight Aviary.
Another of the Exhibits that I can just wander through in a meditative daze, I love the sensory immersion of the Aviary. The sounds as much as the sights, it’s a zen place that I hate to visit with others who can’t seem to appreciate the need to walk through the place slowly and silently. It also embodies my view of the Zoo being a place that offers a different experience every visit, as the seasonal nature of the Aviary inhabitants, and even a revisit to the enclosure during a single Zoo excursion, gives a very different outcome every time you walk through it.
On the way to the Thai Village housing the Elephant enclosure, we came across some activity at the Otter display. With a keeper standing by, the Otters were creating a commotion, tossing around what looked at first to be a mussel shell. The biggest of the troop was playing with his new toy, while his family members were trying hard to wrest it from his grip so they could join the fun. I asked the keeper what was going on, and she explained that someone had dropped in their lens cap, and another keeper was coming to help retrieve it, and sure enough…
I had seen the Elephant exhibit last time I was at the Zoo, but it still doesn’t fail to impress me. Obviously the size of the exhibit matches the animals housed within, but the concept of turning the entire section of the Zoo into a Thai village was brilliantly executed.
The cool rainforest theme was just the ticket for us, as the day was lengthening into a cloudless summer scorcher, and within a short walk the Elephant Exhibit gives way to the Orangutans.
We spent about 20 minutes watching the young Dewi play tirelessly with her mother. At just over a year old, she’s as rambunctious as any human child and keeps a large crowd of onlookers engaged with her antics. The Zoo also has a wonderful display, serving to educate those interested, of the threats to the Orangutans home range, including the Palm Oil plantations created to feed humans of their appetite for Bio Diesel (don’t let the green tag fool you. Bio Diesel poses as great a threat to the planet and it’s inhabitants as any fossil fuel, and possible more).
Around past the Tigers, who were lazily sprawled out at the rear of the enclosure, about as far from prying eyes as they could get, oblivious to the fact that there were paying guests eager to catch a better glimpse of them, is the Butterfly House. You could scarcely get two more contrasting experiences. One, a fleeting glimpse of a feline capable of ending you with a single bite to the back of the neck, and consuming you in about 3 meals, while the other a fully immersive world of delicate postage stamp sized paintings, sipping nectar from dainty yellow cups, alighting on passers-by momentarily before pulling themselves gracefully through the air with periodic beats of gossamer wings.
My first visit to the Butterfly House was in Winter and, as a result, I always expect to walk into the hoop hut shaped building and into a hot and humid environment. During the Summer, however, the climate in the hut just feels humid, and it’s something I never get used to. It’s another of those exhibits that just forces you to be quiet and contemplative. Slowly you make your way through the exhibit, and you exit into a hap hazard display of other insects and Spiders. I really wish they would do more with this.
Near the end of our day, a 5 hour sojourn through 55 acres of exhibits and gardens, we weave our way through the Apes and Monkeys. The new enclosure for the Gorillas offers plenty of glass vantage points of their grassy home of hills and trees. It was the third new exhibit that really impressed and it’s another exhibit where the attempt to keep the animals healthy psychologically as well as physically is obvious, with lots of props and swings to keep the Chimps busy.
Finally it’s a climb up through the elevated platforms to view the monkeys from glass fronted viewing stages high in each of the Monkey’s exhibits. The result of the enclosure design is a replicated canopy view of these tree top acrobats, and there is never a lack of show ponies willing to perform for the public. Colobus and Spider Monkeys swing precariously from ropes and tree branches with amazing speed and agility, and their antics have kids and adults alike pressed hard against the glass making it difficult to see whom is actually watching whom.
I shot almost 100 photo’s today, which is actually a bit down on my usual trips to the Zoo. We walk through the Gift Shop, and the exit beyond, with just minutes left on our Parking Voucher, and make our way back to Sunbury via the Freeway…which reminds me, I have to get our Toll pass for this trip.