After a short bus ride from downtown Wellington I arrive at the Zoo in Newtown, the suburb that is located in the hills Wellington is built on. Together with neighbouring Newtown Park the Zoo is part of a green belt that runs over these hills at this side of town. It has been sixteen years since my previous visit to Wellington Zoo and I expect to see a lot of changes, although I doubt if my recollection of that visit is spot on.
Anyway, the Asian small-clawed otter enclosure and the gibbon island directly after the entrance are exactly how I remember it. Especially the island for the white-cheeked gibbons and the island for the brown capuchins and spider monkeys (black-handed as well as white-fronted) provide a naturalistic habitat with plenty of vegetation, although a few really large trees would make at least the two gibbons (male and female) happy I think, for allowing them to brachiate through the treetops. Now they have to include the ropes and wooden poles in their rush through the exhibit. The water-filled moat around both the islands is being supervised by Australian pelican, as police officers in their black-and-white plumage.
Opposite the gibbon island the nocturnal house, called The Twilight, houses kiwi and tuatara. It is basically a walk-through exhibit where you can see, if your eyes are up to it, the Zoo’s three male North Island brown kiwi and two of their tuatara. The latter are sometimes called ‘living fossils’, as they are the only living members of an ancient order of reptile that evolved millions of years ago. Tuatara live their lives in the ‘slow lane’ and can grow very old. People think they can become 100 and more. The oldest Tuatara at the Zoo is over 50 years old. Two of the tuatara are trained as contact animals, which means that there’s a chance you can meet them around the Zoo somewhere while handled by a Visitor Ranger.
Another mixed-species exhibit is situated on the same side of the footpath as The Twilight, opposite the other primate island. Bolivian squirrel monkey together with agouti are kept in what I would call a semi-closed exhibit, meaning that the animals are separated from the visitors on the lower part by glass, while the upper part consists of wire mesh. Separated from the squirrel monkey the building also has cotton-top tamarin on display.
Next I pass the Green Zoo — an interactive exhibit that explains about being responsible and sustainable considering your impact on the environment — and have a look at the area dedicated to New Zealand’s native species, Meet the Locals it is called or He Tuku Aroha in Maori language. This section was opened on 22 October 2015 and is designed for visitors to experience what New Zealand is like. The small footpath winds uphill along wild and domestic indigenous species such as little blue penguin (Eudyptula minor), Finnish Landrace sheep, kunekune pig, weta and ends at the kea walk-through aviary that is still under construction and due for opening in 2017.
The Zoo acts as a rescue centre for the world’s smallest penguin they keep at Penguin Point near the entrance of this NZ area. None of them have been born in captivity, but each was rescued from a life-threatening situation in the wild, either eye-related issues or flipper trauma due to being tangled badly in fishing gear. This impaired their hunting abilities and thus survival in the wild. They are well taken care of as they have access to a nice pool with vegetation on the banks that resembles the vegetation along New Zealand’s coastline. The boat that services as shelter is perhaps a bit overdone, although in the wild the birds may seek shelter at night under boats that lie on the shore.
The Farm with the sheep and kunekune pigs, but also with bees, rabbits, and chickens, has a barn area where visitors can learn more about how we rely on animals for products like wool, honey, meat and milk. There’s also a regenerating bush in which 4,000 native plants were planted to attract and support the native wildlife which live in the Zoo’s surroundings. It could be that my expectations of the message to be provided by a zoological facility are misguided, but at the Farm I miss the story about the consequences of the massive amounts of animal products we produce and consume worldwide — the impact on biodiversity and ecosystems. Unless I overlooked such vital information which is relevant for the message a zoo should get across, this part fails to impress me. This is not the case at the final stage of the Meet the Locals section where some lesser known locals are introduced including grand skinks, Otago skinks and Maud Island frogs. There it is explained how the Zoo is a conservation hub within New Zealand. Unfortunately, the kea aviary is still under construction, but the size is very promising. It will allow these smart mountain parrots, that use tools to get food and are capable of solving complex puzzles, to show normal behaviour — flying around. As this will be a walk-through aviary there will be an access point on the other side as well, that is near the Sumatran tiger enclosure.
At the moment the path ends here, so I return to the Meet the Locals entrance and turn towards the black-and-white ruffed lemurs opposite the current kea exhibit. They keep only two specimens of this Critically Endangered primate species. The social structure of the species varies from large groups to pairs in the wild, so keeping just two of them is not unnatural. The enclosure type is a bit old-school I would say, with wire mesh fences at the front except for the lower part where there are viewing windows. Nowadays, lemur enclosures are mostly presented as walk-through exhibits, but as I am not in favour of close encounters and touching I prefer the old-school type with much enrichment and vegetation like the one Wellington Zoo has built.
Meanwhile the footpath has reached a rather steep slope here. Most of the paths are gently sloping, but some are steep enough to make even a healthy adult walk slowly ?. As said, the Zoo is situated on one of the hills in the Wellington area, so a little effort was to be expected while exploring the grounds.
Before I go further uphill to the sun bear and Sumatran tiger territory I have a brief look at the golden lion tamarin exhibit. The tamarin are temporarily not on display, because just recently a new male has arrived from Bronx Zoo, USA, and was introduced to the Zoo’s female. The Zoo hopes they will contribute to the international conservation breeding programme, but to achieve this they first have to get used to each other backstage. The Mini Monkey house, where separate from the golden lion tamarin also pygmy marmosets are housed, comprises lots of vegetation in a naturalistic habitat. The pygmy marmosets share their habitats with Green Iguanas.
The two sun bears are currently the only bears held in a zoological facility in New Zealand. They have access to a large uphill situated enclosure with many boulders and a waterfall. To compensate for the lack of vegetation additional enrichment features are provided, such as tree trunks and wooden platforms, to mimic their original habitat in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. One of the bears, born in the wild, was rescued from outside a store in Cambodia in 1996. He came to Wellington Zoo in 2004 as part of the regional Malayan Sun Bear breeding programme.
Next to the bear exhibit there are two tiger enclosures for the Sumatran tiger couple. These young tigers are potential partners within the breeding programme, but are kept separate and introduced slowly. The main and largest enclosure, although still much too small for an animal with such a large hunting territory as the tiger, is equipped with all features a big cat could wish for — a variety of vegetation that provide shade when needed, trees to satisfy its scratching behaviour, a pond for a cool dip, high level observation posts and several shelters. The other enclosure is smaller and hardly visible from any viewing position.
The highest point of the grounds has two dedicated areas, one for African species and one for Australian animals. Coming from the sun bears I start my tour around this part of the Zoo at the the mixed-species exhibit with giraffe, ostrich, helmeted guinea fowl and a large herd of nyala. It’s a large dry savannah type enclosure with an observation hut with a thatched roof and in one corner a fake African village to contribute to the make-believe Africa experience. In contrast to many of the bar-less enclosures I have seen so far, and much to my surprise, the serval and caracal that are kept across from the savannah area have not only wire mesh fences all around but a wire mesh netting as a roof as well. This is not per se a negative feature, as long as the needs of the species are met. But for species that like to climb trees and prefer high level observation or resting posts, or like to swing around in treetops, a wire mesh roof could impair their natural behaviour. Creating a roof in an exhibit normally means less height and no large trees available.
A little further along the path and neighbouring the caracal, another feline species that has the savannah as its native habitat can be found, the cheetah. This fastest land mammal has an open top enclosure at its disposal, that mimics a dry savannah. Partly due to the size of the enclosure, and partly because of the sloping grounds, a cheetah that will retire uphill will be invisible for visitors.
The enormous enclosure for the small troop of hamadryas baboons, seven to be exact, that follows on the left when I continue my tour, is most impressive. Too large to even consider creating a roof, the fences have a special rim that should keep the baboons from breaking out. It’s unlike the crowded baboon rock you’ll see in many European zoos. This enclosure with its sloping grounds is rather bare with some large boulders and the odd shrub, and it takes a few moments before I spot my first baboon.
I’m in for a surprise when I follow the path into the Australian outback section, called Neighbours. There’s a free roaming emu replacing the omnipresent peacocks in European zoos. I’m on my guard while proceeding. Not only because this is for the first time I experience a close encounter possibility with an emu, but also because I’ve heard about the damage an ostrich can cause when attacking a person. Common ostriches deliver slashing kicks with their powerful feet, armed with long claws, with which they can disembowel or kill a person with a single blow. And an emu is just a small ostrich or not. See for yourself:
Other species in the Australia section are the dingo, the inevitable Eastern grey kangaroo and the wallaby, as well as four Tasmanian devils that came to the Zoo in 2013, for the first time since the 1920s. Wellington Zoo supports the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program as of December 2013 to save the species from extinction due to the Devil Facial Tumour Disease — a rare contagious viral cancer that reduced wild Tasmanian Devil populations by about 80%. Within the programme the contributing zoos work together to create a healthy insurance population, that is crucial for repopulating Tasmania once the disease has been eliminated in the wild.
When leaving the Neighbours several African species are waiting ahead, of which the porcupine and meerkat are the least interesting. The chimpanzee troop of 10, however, is one of the largest in Australasia. They have a walled outdoor enclosure with lots of artificial enrichment, such as ropes, wooden poles and platforms, and a water-filled moat on the visitor’s side (see also video). And if it wasn’t for the wall the chimps would have a magnificent view on the city, but fortunately they can climb upon a platform to enjoy the views. It’s clear that the exhibit can do with some additional vegetation — a few trees and shrubs will take away the dullness of the grassy paddock. Perhaps the enclosure update that is expected to be completed mid to late 2018 will make the chimp habitat more naturalistic.
The last African species on my tour is the one with which it all began in 1906 when ‘King Dick’, a young African lion, was donated to the city by the Bostock and Wombwell Circus (see History). Nowadays the Zoo hosts five lions, but it is not actually a pride of five. The three females are kept separate from the two males to avoid any aggression, because the gender groups do not like each other that much. The somewhat circular outdoor enclosure has got a large rock formation in the middle that provides shadow, shelter and a high level observation platform. But further to this it is not very spectacular.
Wellington Zoo is not much different from other zoos worldwide regarding their animal collection. They made a brave decision in the 1980s to reduce the number of species and focus on endangered species instead of the common ones. But the choices of the species they keep are very similar to choices made at other zoos. Especially species that are attractive for the potential visitor, for instance renowned and dangerous such as tigers or lions, or with an extraordinarily anatomy like a giraffe, or supposedly cuddly like lemurs, and of course apes always increase visitor numbers. Thus, when I make my way to the exit it’s not a surprise to find a red panda exhibit on my right hand side. It’s a nice exhibit with a lot of vegetation including a few large trees that offer great sleeping places for the small carnivore with the thick red hairy coat from Asia whose diet consists mainly (98%) of bamboo.
Like many zoos with a long history and therefore many changes in the collection as well as in layout and buildings, they arrived at a in-between-solution of how to present the animal collection. Here at Wellington Zoo I saw three clearly defined areas with animals from a certain geographical origin, New Zealand, Africa and Australia. In addition they have grouped their primate species from three continents with nocturnal species as neighbours. The four non-primate species from Asian origin, Sumatran tiger, sun bear, red panda and small-clawed otter, are not really grouped I would say, they are more or less filling the gaps. All in all I think it is not too confusing for the ignorant visitor, also because the geographical origin is mentioned on the information panels. The species conservation status is provided according the classification of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, next to a brief description of other species specifics. What is really disappointing is the lack of the scientific names of the species, on the information panels as well as on the website. Apart from this obvious flaw from educational point of view, the website is a good source of information on the Zoo’s species, including the conservation needs and the efforts the Zoo make to fulfil those needs.