“ The Melbourne Zoo is set at the edge of Royal Park, NW of the city. The zoo is constantly changing, with new and innovative ideas for improving life for the animals as well as improving viewing for the public. „
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About a half hour's walk from the very centre of Melbourne, at the fringe of the so-called Royal Park, sits the Royal Melbourne Zoo. In my opinion, it is a wonderful setting for a Zoo, and I consider the neighbouring Royal Park to be truly beautiful, but it is beautiful in a very Australian sense. There aren't any rose gardens, topiaries, or green and manicured lawns here. Nor are there any picnic tables, or extravagant plants with their botanical names displayed on discrete little plaques at their feet. Instead, the park consists of a sequence of endless, sun-parched fields, framing the massive Southern sky above. Impossibly tall Eucalypts stand at the edges, as slim and elegant as water birds, with their long, scented leaves draped like tendrils. Then there is the Zoo, encircled by its formidable, red brick fortifications. The tips of exotic trees peer enticingly over the wall, and the distant calls and chatter of exotic beasts hover in the air.
I have visited the Zoo many times, mainly when I was young, either on summer holiday treats with my brothers, or for school excursions, occasions which were invariably marred by having to wear my school uniform, complete with hat and blazer, even at the height of Summer, and having to complete endless questionnaires as we traipsed around, to be completed and submitted later as 'Science' homework. Last autumn, however, on an unseasonably hot April day, I visited the Zoo again, for the first time in well over a decade and it was quite an eye-opening visit.
HISTORY: Melbourne's Zoo, somewhat surprisingly, is one of the oldest in the world. Its proximity to the centre of the city makes it rather reminiscent of London's Zoo, on which, incidentally, it was originally modelled. The Zoo began life in Richmond, on the flats of the Yarra River, before moving to its current location in 1862. However, the development of the Zoological collection only really began in earnest after the appointment of Albert Le Souef in 1870. He subsequently acquired monkeys, American Black Bears, lions, tigers amongst other species, as well as establishing picnic grounds and garden beds, some of which remain to this day.
In the early years of the Melbourne Zoo, its unfortunate inhabitants were housed in superannuated circus cages, or extemporised huts. An article published in the Edinburgh review in 1855 was highly critical of these conditions. "Why do we coop these noble animals in such nutshells of cages?" Its author asked, "What a miserable sight to see them pace backwards and forwards in their box-like dens! Why should they, of all the beasts of the forest, be condemned to such imprisonment?" After the appointment of Le Souef, a bear pit was dug, and aviaries erected. Throughout this period, public access to the zoo was free of charge. Visitors 'took great delight in teasing the monkeys, watching the animals being fed and then dozing' over their sandwiches in the picnic areas. Entrance fees were levied for the first time in 1881, to enable the Zoo to make more exotic additions to its humble menagerie. An elephant and an orang-utan were purchased that year. Various other animals were added to the steadily growing collection, including bison, zebras and giraffes.
Throughout the 19th century, Australians had been rather scathing and dismissive of their own native animals, but the growing sense of nationalism that followed Australia's Federation at the turn of the 20th led to an increased interest in native fauna and flora. The Zoo, in turn, maintained a very strong Australian collection, even establishing a special section in 1934 to display platypus, koala and a wide range of native animals. Today, this represents one of the Zoo's most popular and important collections.
ARRIVAL: The Zoo has two main entrances: the 'Main Gate' on the south side, and the so-called 'Rail Gate' on the north side. The 'Main Gate', built in the 1930's, is housed in a stylish, geometrical building, possibly influenced by the work of Albert Speer. The Rail Gate (so called because it is situated opposite the railway station) is more modern in appearance. If arriving from the Rail gate, you will approach the Australian animal exhibits first, whereas the Main Gate leads firstly towards the monkeys, gorillas and orang-utans. A beautiful, central boulevard, the 'Main Drive' leads from one entrance to the other. This is lined with some stunning and well-maintained garden beds, as well as a couple of very attractive fountains.
THE COLLECTIONS: The Melbourne Zoo has a number of excellent collections and exhibits, however for the purposes of this review I shall have to confine myself to addressing only a few of these in any detail. There is a fairly small, but very charming Meerkat display to the right of the main entrance, of which I am particularly fond. The Meerkats are always tremendously engaging and sociable, and generally a joy to watch. Further along there are Red Pandas, Tree Kangaroos and Fairy Penguins. Opposite the Lakeside Bistro and Japanese Garden there is an enormous aviary, which resembles a massive birdcage. A variety cockatoos, lorikeets and other Australian parrots are on display here.
The lions are housed in a very large and attractive open space, with trees and grasses growing wild. There is a viewing platform to the side, as well as a semi-caged walkway above the exhibit, enabling visitors to view the lions from two separate positions. The Butterfly House, located on the outskirts of the 'Elephant Village', is a lush, tropical glasshouse which houses more than 800 butterflies at any one time. These flutter prettily over dense and vibrantly green tropical foliage. More than 30,000 butterflies are bred in the glasshouse every year. Some of the varieties represented are very large, and many are inclined to land on any visitor who pauses for a moment on their way through. Finally, both the seal and hippopotamus enclosures feature underground tunnels with glass viewing areas, so that the animals can be seen diving through the clear turquoise water, as well as reclined on the grey boulders above.
ELEPHANTS: The former Elephant house, built in the 1940's, was a depressing affair, rather resembling a sort of mausoleum. It was approximately 30 metres wide, and 20 metres deep, and encircled by a large moat. This stood empty for some time after the elephants moved on, but has recently been completely transformed. A spectacular dining hall with an African theme has been built within the elephants' former sleeping quarters, and this serves as one of the zoo's many function areas, accommodating 'Roar & Snore' guests for their evening meal. The 'Roar & Snore' scheme is a classic illustration of Melbourne Zoo's exciting and innovative approach. It entails exotic 'Safari' sleepovers in the summer, amongst the animals, with guests wining and dining 'where the elephants once walked', exploring the zoo after dark with a tour guide, sleeping in African-style safari tents and breakfasting outdoors in the morning. This costs $135 per night for adults (approx £57).
As to the elephants themselves, they are now housed in a new enclosure at the opposite end of the zoo, which forms part of a much larger exhibit, 'The Elephant Village'. This relatively new area within the zoo is something truly special. Approaching the village, you will pass through the 'Asian Rainforest' zone, which houses a large and impressive display of tigers. At the entrance to the elephant display there is a fascinating hut which functions as a sort of museum, with all sorts of photographs and exhibits on display. The elephants are able parade at their leisure in a large and commodious space, which extends around an almost impossibly authentic Thai-style village. Thai signage and miscellaneous artefacts abound. On the day we visited, it was extremely hot and rather crowded, and it really was possible to imagine that one was actually in Thailand There is a large outdoor dining area at the centre of the 'village', as well as a covered-area in a large hall, built along the lines of a large, rural Thai house, and decorated beautifully throughout with an attractive array of pictures and souvenirs. One can well imagine the delight of the zoo staff sent off on an errand to accumulate these items Finally, the outdoor seating area is surrounded by a number of cafes and take-away stalls, selling Thai food, noodles and the like, as well as ice-creams, sandwiches and so on. It is a delightful and evocative place to pause for a very decent curry and an ice-cold Tiger beer, whilst watching the elephants meander languidly past.
AUSTRALIAN ANIMALS: Although the Healesville Sanctuary is probably the best place in or around Melbourne to see and experience native Australian animals at close range, it is located approximately 2 hours from the centre of the city, and thus, really requires sacrificing a full day to visit it properly. In view of this, the Australian animal exhibit at the Melbourne Zoo provides an excellent alternative. The tour begins in the reptile and frog enclosures, which house extensive collections of toads, frogs, lizards and snakes. The latter can be seen slithering behind thick glass in a sequence of dark and terrifying chambers. As Australia is home to eight of the world's ten most deadly snakes, this seems as good a place as any to get to 'know thy enemy'.
The nearby 'Platypussery' (a real word, believe it or not) is another highlight. Platypus are in fact much smaller than people often imagine or expect, with an adult platypus growing to roughly the size of a domestic rabbit. The platypus has a delightfully incongruous appearance, with his furry trunk, beak and flippers. In fact, when the first specimen was brought back to Britain in the early 18th Century, the general scientific consensus was that it was a hoax, some sort of taxidermist's joke fashioned from a small mammal and a duck. Platypus are completely nocturnal, and as such, almost impossible to see in the wild. The Zoo's platypus enclosure is thus in almost complete darkness. There is a large tank, with plants growing amidst the rocks at the surface of the water. The entrances to concealed caves, in which the platypus nest, can just be made out to the sides. It takes a little while for the eyes to adjust, however once they do, it is possible to see the platypus glide to and fro in the water with effortless elegance, and it really is an entrancing spectacle.
Further along, there is an open, unfenced area with emus and small kangaroos, where it is possible to walk right amongst them. Perhaps predictably, this is one of the Zoo's most popular displays, especially among tourists. This in turn leads on to enclosures with hairy-nosed wombats and koalas. A large collection of Australian birds can also be viewed in the 'Great Flight Aviary'.
SPECIAL EVENTS: Other than the 'Roar & Snore' event mentioned previously, there are a number of interesting and unusual events held at the Zoo, the details of which are available on the website. Some examples include the 'Zoo Twilights' season, a very popular series of Musical concerts held in the Zoo grounds on summer evenings, and 'Beastly Breakfasts' which take place in the Rainforest area from 7am, and feature 'breakfast sessions with the gorillas, tigers, butterflies, and elephants'.
FACILITIES: There are five distinct dining areas within the zoo grounds, ranging from small take-away and ice cream stalls, to licensed, à la carte restaurants. The lakeside restaurant, beside the Japanese garden with its beautiful, Asian pagoda, is a particularly nice place to pause for lunch or afternoon tea. There is a large outdoor seating area, under the shade of some huge and beautiful Moreton Bay Fig trees, with the restaurant to one side and a buffet-style cafeteria with salads, sandwiches and a variety of hot foods on the other. In my opinion, the restaurant proper is far better value, as the facilities are much more comfortable, and the (excellent) menu is very reasonably priced, with large, fresh salads costing about $7 (less than £3) and a glass of very good Australian wine costing about $4.50 (£1.75). You would probably end up spending just as much in the crowded and unlicensed cafeteria. Children are very well catered for throughout. The Lakeside Reception Centre is very popular for weddings, twenty-first birthdays and the like, and I've attended a couple of really exquisite events there in the past. There are four gift shops in the zoo, one at each of the main entrances, one at the Lakeside Centre, and one at the Elephant Village. Each sells a very varied and attractive selection of high-quality souvenirs and merchandise. Public toilets, most with baby-changing facilities, can be found at six different locations, well distributed throughout the Zoo. These are all extremely clean and well presented. Public drinking fountains, which are quite popular in Australia, can also be found at various locations, and the water is very cold and perfectly safe to drink!
FINALLY: I've always felt a degree of ambivalence about Zoos. They obviously serve a very useful purpose in many ways, and I do believe that they have their place, but only if the happiness and wellbeing of the animals is given first priority at all times. Unfortunately, several (generally outdated) Zoos that I have visited in the past have failed in this respect, with small and unpleasant enclosures, or viewing areas that cater to the crowds, rather than to the animals themselves. In the case of Melbourne's Zoo, if you'd asked me about the sensitivity of its displays prior to my most recent visit, I probably wouldn't have known how to respond. I suspect you generally only really notice the sensitivity of a zoo's exhibits when they are either very good, or very bad, and in the past the Melbourne Zoo's were neither.
Recent refurbishments, however, have pushed the zoo up to another level, and any even mildly substandard exhibits have either been closed or completely renovated. The Elephant enclosure is a superb case in point. There is one obvious downside to this conscientious dedication to the wellbeing of the Zoo's animals, however. Namely, that because they have been given such lush and generously sized exhibits, with plenty of rocks to crawl behind and foliage to snooze under, the animals can be, well, rather difficult to spot at times. Perhaps the heat had sent many of them into hiding on the day we visited, I'm not sure. But we did seem to spend an awful lot of time scouring one display or another for its shy and elusive inhabitant! If this is the price to be paid for a thoughtful and humane zoo, however, in my opinion it is a price well worth paying.
The Royal Melbourne Zoo is a fantastic place to spend a day in Melbourne, and is highly recommended for visitors of any age. It is a superb example of a progressive, 21st Century Zoo, and other than the beautiful Zoo in Berlin, it is probably my favourite Zoo in the world.
GETTING THERE: If travelling from central Melbourne, the quickest and easiest way to get to the Zoo is to take a tram directly up Swanston Street and Royal Parade, past the University of Melbourne. This should take no longer than 15 minutes. It is also possible to travel by train from Flinders Street station, or from any of the underground train stations on the City Loop. A daily travel pass, valid on all trains, trams and busses, costs about £2.50.
ADMISSION CHARGES: Adults $21.00 (£9.00), Children $10.00 (£4.00), Disabled Children $5.00 (£2.00), Concession $15.00 (£7.00). Family Passes & Group Discounts are also available.