The first zoo in Auckland opened its gates to the public on 2 November 1911 in the Auckland suburb of Onehunga. The Royal Oak Zoo as it was called was established on about 2.5 hectare of land that entrepreneur John James Boyd purchased in February that year — land that was still totally bare at the time. It was the purpose of Boyd to establish Auckland’s first zoological facility. Such an effort he had accomplished earlier, in 1910, at Upper Aramoho near Wanganui, also on New Zealand’s North Island.
Boyd set up a private menagerie on the acquired grounds, which at its heydays added up to more than 2000 birds and other animals. The Royal Oak Zoo was a constant source of aggravation, because the local residents were upset and complained about the noise, the smell, the crowds, and the ever-present threat of having wild and dangerous animals on the loose in their neighbourhood. So Boyd’s Zoo became controversial, with the local Onehunga Borough Council trying to close it, but counteracted with a successful run for mayor of Onehunga by Boyd himself. Nevertheless, in the end the local Council forced Boyd to close the zoo in 1922. In June of 1922 the Auckland City Council purchased the remainder of the animals, the six lions, a tiger, a panther, one hyena, two dogs, vultures, an emu and several monkeys, that Boyd had not already sold to other individuals. And with that group of animals the early seeds of Auckland Zoo were sown. There is still a Boyd Street in Onehunga today.
Six months after the City Council bought the animals, on Saturday 16 December 1922, Auckland Zoo was opened to the public, at the current Western Springs location, then a semi rural area about 6km from town hall. The Zoo staff, at its opening, comprised one zookeeper, an assistant keeper, a turnstile attendant and a night watchman, all of them enjoying a seven-day working week. After only 6 months of construction work being done the new Zoo of just over 11 hectares was still an uninspiring place, but this didn’t last long. Soon, many trees were planted and in July 1923 the City Council decided on developing a bandstand, next to better enclosures for polar bear, hippopotamus, bison, elephant, tiger and other species. Many of these original zoo structures became and still are Zoo landmarks. Also in 1923 the Zoo’s first director, L.T. Griffin, went to Africa to source species from the wild. These trips to other continents were part of the aggressive Zoo policy of expansion over the next few years. But besides these trips, animals could be purchased due to donations, such as Jamuna the female Asian elephant, Auckland Zoo’s first star who arrived on June 1923 (see ).
In these early years the Zoo expanded rapidly, new enclosures were built and new species arrived, also because businessmen donated animals which they had acquired on trips abroad. The Zoo’s developments were topped by the birth of 25 mammals and 62 birds at the zoo in 1928. Further to this, the Zoo’s mission was extended by the inauguration of the Auckland Zoological Society on 17 July 1929. Although its main purpose was to encourage scientific study, it became merely an interest and support group for the Zoo.
When in 1935 Lt. Col. E.R. Sawer was approached to report on where the zoo should be headed, the result impressed the City Council. They appointed Sawer as director/curator on 1 April 1936, after which he introduced the novel notion that zoological parks should focus on education, science and conservation.
In his report Sawer had called for animals to be paired or grouped, which is exactly what he did as well as introducing order and coordination. The changes that Sawer made reduced the enormously high mortality rates, that were normal in zoos at the time, from a whopping 35 percent in 1930 to about 10 percent in 1937. This even went as far as that in 1939 for the first time the number of births surpassed mortality in Zoo mammals. Especially, better animal diets including the provision of additional vitamins and other supplements led to noticeable improvements such as better fertility and reduced disease rates. Sawer’s good sense of marketing and the end of the economic depression helped the Zoo transform from a terrain with a group of emptying cages to a zoological park with a ‘full house of exhibits,’ including the accompanying exotic species — native fauna was not yet allowed.
Despite lower turnstile numbers and low priority for animal importation and food supply for the zoo animals during WWII, the war period was not quite as eventful as for zoos in countries in western Europe. Nonetheless, at the end of the war the Zoo was in a state of slight disrepair and depletion of stocks. The problem of building up a new animal collection was not easily solved after the war. Many zoos all over the world were looking to improve their collections, and New Zealand’s geographical isolation was more or less out of scope for the animal collectors and exporters. Moreover, Auckland Zoo was surpassed by Wellington Zoo on the list of politician’s favourites, and the Zoo was still not allowed to exhibit native fauna.
In 1948 the dark shadow of war disappeared with the approval of the construction of new facilities such as an aquarium, while in 1949 the Zoo was officially allowed to exhibit kiwi. But the postwar baby boom among New Zealand’s population led to a Council decision to create more entertainment activities in the Zoo, to satisfy the people with children. Sawer had always strongly resisted the introduction of animal entertainment as it had nothing to do with the Zoo being an educational institution, which it should be in his view. With Sawer retiring in 1949 he lost that battle, but he had another clear message for the Council — the Zoo needed a full-time on-site curator and veterinarian.
The next five years the Council’s commitment to further improve the Zoo showed when existing enclosures were renovated and new enclosures were built for sun bears, wombats, echidnas, monkeys, tigers and birds. At the same time progress was made by developing basic hospital facilities, a quarantine area, better equipment, and service areas. Visitor numbers increased, because Auckland citizens had more money and time to spend and other attractions were closed on Sundays and public holidays. This also led to the decision to introduce even more entertainment, especially animal entertainment. Following the popular chimpanzee tea parties at London Zoo, four chimps, who learned the ropes of performing a good tea party in London, arrived in October 1956 to perform for the Auckland community. After eight years of entertaining the crowds the chimps were relieved from their task when attitudes towards treatment of animals in captivity were beginning to change. During these rather prosperous 1950s other entertainment attractions were introduced such as a miniature train and the children’s zoo in 1958. A highlight in the animal collection could have been the birth of twin polar bears in June 1957. Unfortunately, one of the cubs died shortly after birth, while the other one drowned when 11 weeks old during the swimming lessons given by its mother. In the years between 1923 and 1995 Auckland Zoo exhibited several polar bears, and although some lived to an old age, they all developed skin lesions. Additionally, they had a bad track record regarding breeding polar bears, because only one cub was ever raised to adulthood at the Zoo.
The 1960s started with a new Zoo director (supervisor), Derek Wood, who was trained in the United Kingdom at Chester Zoo and he brought with him the first giraffe ever to set foot on New Zealand, John from London Zoo. As said the chimpanzee tea parties were terminated in 1964, in May to be exact, but the tea-party chimps remained at the zoo until their deaths. The tea-party chimps displayed abnormal, anti-social behaviour for the rest of their lives. Hence, none of them — except two chimps born in the Zoo that never participated in the tea-parties — could be introduced into the natural social group of chimpanzees that was established later in the 1980s. When in 2004 was decided to focus on just one great ape species — the orangutan, and the troop of six chimpanzees were relocated to Hamilton Zoo, Bobbie and Janie were the two surviving ‘tea party’ chimps that remained in Auckland. Bobbie died in November 2004 and Janie passed away in October 2013 at the age of 60, having lived at Auckland Zoo for 57 years.
Building activities continued in the 1960s and besides other considerable improvements a nocturnal house for New Zealand’s national icon, the kiwi, was erected. This period also saw the arrival of many new animals, including a female elephant from Singapore as the long-awaited companion for Jamuna the Asian elephant, to succeed the bull that was killed in 1936. But star elephant Jamuna died in September 1965, and replaced by Ma Schwe, a female Asian elephant, in 1968. Other new animals arrived, such as a female giraffe, a pair of Bengal tigers, two young polar bears, a giant anteater, two capuchin monkeys, white-tailed deer, 23 keas and four spider monkeys. The giraffe herd and spider monkey troop at the zoo today are descendants of these first imports.
Despite old enclosures being demolished and replaced by new ones the Zoo still suffered from the everlasting problems with flooding. As a matter of fact, even in June 1977 it was still possible that a hippo floated out of its enclosure into Western Springs during a flood. So, it should be no surprise that already in the 1960s the first serious calls for expansion arose and a major overhaul began. This led eventually to a long-term plan of the Council to modernise the Zoo with natural, moated, bar-less enclosures and an extension of the grounds into Western Springs park with approximately 5 hectares in 1973. For starters they closed the original entrance on Old Mill Road and opened a new entrance on Motions Road.
The 1970s saw enormous improvements, including those of the veterinary support, the stopping of public feeding, development of more naturalistic enclosures and introduction of behavioural enrichments. Subsequently the breeding successes increased. Animals deemed unsuitable for Auckland Zoo were transferred or phased out of the zoo’s collection, although it took another 20 years before the last polar bear died. During the late 1970s the Zoo was one enormous construction site with a new souvenir shop, cafeteria and enclosures for the giraffe, zebra and antelope to be completed. The overall professionalism increased with the employment of a full-time education officer as of 1975, and in 1976 the first comprehensive course for zookeepers started at the Auckland Technical Institute. Besides those developments new species arrived as well. People could come and watch white rhinoceroses and tamarins in the 1970s.
New enclosure development continued in the 1980s with a new hippopotamus exhibit and a new moated and bar-less orangutan exhibit opened, the latter is currently part of the Orangutan Trail. But probably the highlight of those days was the three-month stay of a pair of giant pandas. These pandas were part of an offer that the Chinese government made to the Australian Prime Minister for Australia’s bi-centennial celebrations. A three-month stay in Melbourne Zoo and a three-month stay in Taronga Zoo, Sydney, was organised, and Auckland Zoo quickly investigated the feasibility of a third stop in Auckland. Well, these became a popular three months in 1988, and all revenues were donated to giant panda research and conservation in China as well as to conservation projects in New Zealand. Not sure if this was the trigger that visitor numbers rose again after a decline in the early 80s when competition appeared due to the opening of the Rainbow’s End theme park and Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World in the Auckland area, but the giant pandas alone were seen by about 300,000 visitors.
In 1989, Auckland as a city expanded when 11 territorial authorities merged into the large city of Auckland. A new Zoo Enterprise Board was established which became the legal entity responsible for the Zoo.
After WWII there had been a continuous flow of construction work ongoing at Auckland Zoo, either new construction or refurbishment. But this last decade of the twentieth century was a time of extreme change at Auckland Zoo, with almost half the zoo’s enclosures being renovated or replaced. As of 1990 the design focussed more and more on creating naturalistic habitats, which shows for instance in the Elephant Clearing. The construction of this exhibit began in 1990 and delivered a large moated outdoor enclosure with a modern elephant house and pool, in which the pachyderms could completely submerge. Another example of this type of exhibit design that is part of the 1991 Zoo development plan, is Pridelands. This large area, including the new savannah exhibit for giraffe, springbok, zebra and ostrich, flamingo, the rhino exhibit and Lion Hill, opened in 1997. For the lions it meant that they could leave the historic lion pit. Soon the area was extended with the Hippo River, a riverine forest area that encompassed a new hippopotamus exhibit and an enclosure for chacma baboons (Papio ursinus). A huge improvement for the baboons that had previously lived in a cage dating from 1926.
Despite the new exhibit and the Zoo’s good track record for breeding hippos a decision was made to phase out hippopotamuses (stop breeding). Due to the average life expectancy of the hippopotamus of 45 – 50 years, however, it would take a long time before all the hippos would die of old age they reckoned. The last two remaining hippos died in 2016, in March and August to be exact. Other species had to be phased out as well, it was decided. This included the wombat, puma, jaguar and leopard. While the genetic base for other species was strengthened, for instance by importing three southern white rhinoceroses from South Africa. One of the two female rhinos appeared 10 months pregnant on arrival from South Africa, so, in effect they had imported four specimens.
The chacma baboons were phased out starting around 2009 when the Zoo’s management decided to focus on the hamadryas baboon species, which is housed in zoos throughout the region.
Besides many smaller developments such as the new ring-tailed lemur enclosure and the new Wallaby walk-through, two other landmark exhibits were built in the 1990s, the New Zealand Aviary (1992) and The Rainforest (1996), a forested area that provides a natural environment for different primate species, including cotton-top tamarins. The New Zealand Aviary is a free-flight aviary and bush walk featuring NZ native species.
Another major development at the turn of the century was the Sea Lion and Penguin Shores, opened in 2001, which replaced the old Wallaby walk-through and small mammal enclosures. This exhibit was designed to recreate a New Zealand Coastal ecosystem featuring a beach and a large pool.
Then a period of relative calm started with regard to construction work, except for the building of the New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine (NZCCM) in 2007. But in 2010 with the opening of the Tropics exhibit, focussing on the hot and tropical Americas, things were fired up again. The New Zealand Aviary, originating from 1992, was redeveloped into ‘The Forest’ in 2011 and to be included in Te Wao Nui — the Zoo’s largest ever project development which is dedicated to New Zealand’s unique fauna and flora. Te Wao Nui (The Living Realm) opened on 11 September 2011 and covers about 4 hectare of the zoo grounds and comprises 6 habitats: The Coast, The Islands, The Wetlands, The Night, The Forest and The High Country. Another existing exhibit that was incorporated in Te Wao Nui is the Sea Lion and Penguin Shores renamed in the process as The Coast.
Then in May 2014, a new giraffe house was completed and in 2016 Auckland Zoo started their transformation into a 21st-century-zoo. In December 2016 ‘Strangely Beautiful Australia’ opened, which draws on the Murray-Darling region of Southeast Australia. The area is home to giant stick insects, Eastern snake-necked turtles, redback spiders, lace monitors and vibrant Australian birds who join the Tasmanian devils, red-necked wallabies and emu to create a bio-diverse Australian section. The development is the second part of the Zoo’s $120 million 10-year-development plan ‘Nearer to Nature’ 2016 – 2026.
Auckland Zoo became involved in many conservation projects over the years, but they made the headlines when they achieved a ‘world’s first’ in 1992 when ‘Hoki’, a kakapo — a native rare flightless parrot, was successfully artificially hatched and reared. It was returned in the wild to Maud Island, one of New Zealand’s offshore islands (see ).
In addition to the Zoo’s existing conservation efforts the Auckland Zoo Conservation Fund was established in 2000 to support the conservation of endangered animals in the wild in both New Zealand and overseas.
Auckland Zoo veterinarians became renown for their knowledge, hands-on experience, and contribution to conservation projects including kakapo recovery. Hence, they were appointed supplier of veterinary services for the Department of Conservation’s Kakapo Recovery Programme in 2006.
In 2007 the New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine (NZCCM) opened — the first national centre for conservation medicine in the world — replacing the Zoo’s old veterinary centre.
The Zoo not only contributed to conservation of New Zealand’s indigenous species, because in 2008 three Sumatran tiger cubs were bred as part of the international captive breeding programme for this Critically Endangered tiger subspecies.
As part of the grand tour of kakapo Sirocco (see ) Auckland Zoo hosted this ambassador for New Zealand conservation during Conservation Week 2009, in partnership with the Department of Conservation. Due to this event the Zoo became the first zoo ever to host a kakapo. Also in 2009 the Zoo released 12 Northern tuatara (descendants of the rare Cuvier Island population) onto Cuvier Island, boosting this island’s known tuatara population by over a third.
A milestone is achieved when 200 North Island brown kiwi chicks are successfully incubated, hatched, reared and released as part of the Operation Nest Egg (O.N.E.) programme (2010). O.N.E. is a Department of Conservation kiwi recovery programme where kiwi eggs are taken from the wild, hatched at the Zoo, and the chicks are kept on predator-free islands until they are grown, before releasing them into the wild.
Having successfully bred and raised several endangered species in the twentieth century, the start of the next century showed a continuation of such highlights that extended the Zoo’s breeding track record. In June 2000 the Zoo’s first white rhino calf was born, which was the first female white rhino born in New Zealand. The first ever successfully hatched greater flamingo chicks in , marked a world’s first for Auckland Zoo in January 2014. It was the first time a zoo had successfully bred from an entirely hand-reared flock in the world. Another world’s first was the successful breeding and (partly hand-)rearing in captivity of twin lesser short-tailed bats in 2014, a species endemic to New Zealand. Also in 2014 one female and three male Tasmanian devils move to Auckland Zoo from Australia’s Healesville Zoo to be part of an insurance population for this species and to raise awareness about the plight of this Endangered marsupial. Even more impressive was the first ever breeding and rearing success of the world’s most evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered (EDGE) amphibian, New Zealand’s rare and unique Archey’s frog, a ‘living fossil’. This boosted the Zoo’s Archey’s frog population to 25 in February 2016.
Unfortunately, not everything the Zoo accomplished received positive appraisal. When in 2015 and 2016 Auckland Zoo acquired two Asian elephants from Sri Lanka to enlarge the Zoo’s elephant number, it was reported by Born Free that both elephants were residents of a controversial Government-owned facility in Sri Lanka. Conditions at Pinnewala Elephant ‘Orphanage’ raised concern with the Born Free Foundation, as did the practice of exporting elephants from Sri Lanka to captive facilities such as zoos overseas. They firmly believe that such export to New Zealand will result in little or no conservation benefit to wild elephants.
(Source: Zoochat, Auckland Zoo website (accessed in January 2016), Wikipedia, Encyclopedia of the World’s Zoos)