Melbourne Zoo opened in 1862 on its Royal Park site. These higher grounds were thought to be more suitable to keep animals than the damp area of the ‘Richmond Paddocks’ where the animals were at display previously. Like other historic Australian zoos in Sydney, Adelaide, and Perth, the zoo was initially involved in the ‘acclimatisation’ of exotic species, which people in those days thought might prove valuable additional sources of food and income. Melbourne zoo’s layout was modeled after London zoo, with formal Victorian-era gardens the major attraction when the zoo first opened, because there were few animals here then, just a few monkeys and a limited selection of native species.
The development of the zoo as we know it today began when Albert le Souef was appointed as Director in 1870. He acquired monkeys, American Black Bears, lions, tigers, and other exotic species. And he was well aware that the zoo was a popular meeting place for Melburnians, so he developed picnic grounds and enhanced the garden displays. The le Souef family lived in the zoo, and the children were involved from an early age, both helping to care for the grounds and looking after ill or injured animals in the family home. When older, two of them were involved in development of respectively Perth zoo and Taronga zoo in Sydney harbour.
For almost 20 years there was no entry fee for zoo visitors, but in 1881 an entry fee was introduced to provide funding so that more animals could be added to the collection. An elephant and an orang-utan arrived in 1881, followed by rhinos, hippos, bison, zebra and giraffe.
In the 1890s the zoo began building a new kind of exhibit: they were brick, with bars across the front viewing area. Still, quite different from Carl Hagenbeck’s ideas of keeping animals in captivity without bars or fences, introduced in the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe, and first seen in Hamburg zoo. Were elephant rides a major attraction in former days, until 1961, now the elephants live in the spacious surroundings of the award-winning Trail of the Elephants, opened in March 2003.
Alfred Dunbavin Butcher played an important role in the Zoo’s history for 40 years, as a member and as Chairman of the Zoological Board. His vision and considerable political acumen transformed the zoo. The Lion Park was the first major exhibit to be completed under this new direction, followed by other significant developments such as the Arboreal Primates treetops walkway, the Great Flight Aviary for Australian birds, and the extremely innovative Butterfly House, which is now named in his honour.
In the 1980s a Master Plan for future development divided the zoo into ‘bioclimatic zones’, where animals that share a common native habitat would be grouped with or near each other. Landscape design would aim to ‘immerse’ visitors in the same habitat as the wildlife on display. For example, the African Rainforest area features gorillas and mandrills. The Asian Rainforest began with displays for otters and tigers, and was later incorporated in the Trail of the Elephants with additional Asian wildlife species further along the jungly walkway.
Melbourne zoo is such an historic site that to create something new, something old has to be removed. The most recent change is the demolition of the seal pool, which was built in 1938 as ‘Monkey Island’. The new development, due to open in 2009, will exhibit Australian Fur Seals, Australian Little Penguins and other marine life.
(Source: website Melbourne zoo)