Auckland Zoo’s century filled with odd tales, exotic animals and conservation

Auckland Zoo's century filled with odd tales, exotic animals and conservation

By Ryan Anderson of

Siamang at Auckland Zoo in 2020.
Photo: Auckland Zoo

From chimpanzee tea parties to a giant panda visit, Auckland Zoo has enjoyed a colourful century since it was founded in 1922. Ryan Anderson reports.

As 1922 drew to a close, a jungle came to life in the middle of Auckland.

The jungle was not lush, or overly green – it was built out of concrete and wood – and a far cry from the meticulously-planned forestry and vast variety of animals that now inhabit the space.

Auckland Zoo was founded in a time when the goal was to bring exotic animals that you could not normally see, and put them in a space where visitors were guaranteed to see them.

The enclosures were simplistic; built in a way that did not block the view of the onlookers.

That was how zoos operated in 1922.

On display in the early years were many animals that have not been seen at the zoo in a long time, such as wolves, polar bears and sun bears.

Children ride an elephant in 1925.
Photo: New Zealand Herald

One hundred years later, the zoo is a front-runner in animal welfare and scientific research – built on the foundation of years of learning about what makes a great zoo.

Senior primate keeper Christine Tintinger.
Photo: Stuff/ Ryan Anderson

Senior primate keeper Christine Tintinger has been with Auckland Zoo for more years than most, racking up four decades of work.

As the zoo passes its centenary, she reflects that in her time there attitudes about why it exists have completely pivoted.

It’s gone from being for public entertainment to prioritising what the animal needs – psychologically, physically, socially, she said.

“Obviously the public are a major part of our zoo, we can’t be here without them, but there’s a good marriage of the animals being the priority.”

Auckland Zoological Park is ready to welcome visitors to the park in 1937.
Photo: Auckland War Memorial Museum

The majority of Tintinger’s time, a quarter-century, has been spent working with primates.

“When you interact with them or do something for them – they give back to you in a way.”

She said orangutans in particular recognise humans and want to be in their company.

“I work by treating others, animals and people, the way I want to be treated, and they sense that, they can feel it’s genuine.”

Photo: Auckland Zoo / Facebook

Primates have a long history at Auckland Zoo, with various species dipping in and out of public display over the century.

While the orangutans and siamang now enjoy the best enrichment possible, with the latest addition of the high canopy taking them above visitors’ heads, the primates in the 1950s had a much different experience – chimpanzee tea parties.

The craze had started at London Zoo and proved to be a hit with the public.

Jumping onto the trend, Auckland acquired a small troop of chimps: Janie, Josie, Minnie and Bobbie.

The event involved young chimpanzees who had been taught how to eat and drink using utensils, being brought out in front of a crowd, dressed in human clothing, and made to simulate a typical British tea party.

The parties continued for seven years until, after repeated requests from zoo staff to council, they were stopped – as the chimpanzees were growing bigger and stronger.

Amy Robbins.
Photo: Grace Watson for Auckland Zoo

Deputy curator of mammals Amy Robbins’ experience proves just how far gone the zoo has come since the time of tea parties.

She remembers the first time the orangutans were put back in their enclosure after the high canopy was finished, and they shot straight up the towers.

“We were all just crying.”

As an arboreal species, they took naturally to the new addition to the zoo despite never having experienced anything of that height before, she said.

“I have visited lots of zoos and spent time working in some other zoos and nobody cares as much about their animals as we do.”

One of the big changes at the zoo over the past few decades is it acts as a base to further conservation work in the wild, Robbins said.

Amongst other work, Robbins established the Sumatra Ranger Project, which provided unemployed local rangers with paid work to help protect wildlife and habitat, as well as supporting the communities living at the forests’ edge.

They protect the habitat that benefits Sumatran tigers, elephants, orangutans and sun bears, she said.

The work of keepers has evolved since the zoo’s inception – whereas they are now heavily based in science, in the early days many were brought in from working as park staff for Auckland Council.

Over the course of the zoo’s history there have only been a few serious keeper injuries.

The first reported incident was in 1938 when a man suffered a serious leg injury while cleaning the black bear exhibit.

The Auckland Star reported at the time that the bear was so trusted it was left in the pit when cleaning was happening.

It was believed that the animal had, as the saying goes, a ‘sore head’.

Fatal tragedy struck in 1954, with keeper Frank Lane dying after Asian elephant Jamuna knocked him into a wall with her trunk, killing him instantly.

Jamuna and her keeper at Auckland Zoo.

It was believed that the incident was a tragic accident, rather than a deliberate attack.

In its century the zoo has been called home by a raft of species, brought from all over the world.

In 1986 the zoo managed to hop on the back of an offer to the Australian prime minister by the Chinese government for a giant panda loan.

While the stay was short, over 300,000 people managed to catch a glimpse of the exotic species.

Polar bears were at the zoo numerous times between the 1920s and 1990s – with two cubs even being born in 1957.

Bison, jaguars, camels and many other animals also spent time on display.

It was fair to say the zoo of 1922 does not bear much resemblance to that of 2022, Auckland Zoo director Kevin Buley said.

Auckland Zoo director Kevin Buley.
Photo: Auckland Zoo

“What we know about the welfare and care of animals – while the zoo of yesteryear was well-intentioned – is now very much based in science.

“The skill-set our staff and team has developed in the zoo is increasingly applicable to conservation in the wild.”

If you look forward 100 years and think about the future of Auckland Zoo, with the realities of climate change and the biodiversity crisis, it’s about how we tackle the problems as a species, he said.

“If we don’t sort our shit out in the next few years then the Auckland Zoo of the future may bear a very strong resemblance to the Auckland Zoo of 1922 – a menagerie.”

The species in the zoo in the future could largely be those who are extinct in the wild, he said, “because we failed”.

To mark its centenary the zoo has created an exhibit and released a book focused on telling the stories of its past.

While the stories touch on key moments from the past, there are more that speak with optimism about the future.

The view that gets the team of bed every morning Buley said, is that as a species, working together, we can address climate change and arrested biodiversity loss.

“Without optimism and hope, we would all pack up and go home now.”

This story originally appeared on Stuff.

Auckland Zoo’s century filled with odd tales, exotic animals and conservation

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