New Zealand’s oldest surviving zoo was established in 1906 after a group of residents petitioned the Wellington City Council to establish a Zoo for the people of Wellington. This petition coincided with the offer to the city of a young lion by the name of “King Dick” (named after Prime Minister Richard Seddon) by the Bostock and Wombwell Circus. King Dick was officially the Zoo’s first animal. King Dick was soon joined by llama, emus and kangaroos to form the foundation of the Zoo, initially housed in the Wellington Botanical Gardens. The collection was moved to Newtown Park, the Zoo’s present location, in 1907. The collection of animals grew continuously, with for instance two axis deer and six Himalayan thar donated by the duke of Bedford, president of the Zoological Society of London, in 1908. Other donations, from other zoos and private collections, followed and by 1912, Wellington Zoo housed over 500 animals. King Dick was presented with a female companion, which led to lion cubs born in 2013. Other species on display in that year included camel (which visitors could ride), sea lion, capuchin monkey and dingo. Over the next 30 years, with support of the Wellington Zoological Society the Zoo new animals were acquired and new enclosures built or improved. The first tigers arrived in 1923 and the first elephants in 1927, while two moated bear enclosures with concrete walls were constructed in 1929 and 1931. The Zoo records show that in the 1920s, besides the Tasmanian devil, the now extinct Tasmanian tiger or Thylacine was part of the animal collection as well.
During WWII zoo development stopped temporarily, because several zookeepers joined the armed forces. Nevertheless things were picked up after the war where they were left earlier. The primate section grew with the arrival of a young Muller’s grey gibbon (Hylobates muelleri) in December 1949, who became the first zoo’s longest serving resident — to be trumped by a tuatara at a certain point in the future of course — as well as the world’s oldest gibbon when he died in 2008. In 1956, as a part of the Zoo’s 50th anniversary celebrations, three female chimpanzees arrived from London Zoo. This must have been the reason that they introduced tea parties with the chimps afterwards. Like in London zoo the tea parties were very popular with the public.
(Source: Archives New Zealand — Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga ;Reference: Pictorial Parade 55. National Film Unit, 1956
Licensed by Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 New Zealand Licence)
The last tea party was in February 1970, four years after Koenraad Kuiper became Zoo director. After World War II Kuiper emigrated to New Zealand because he couldn’t find a suitable job in the Netherlands. More remarkably, his father had been director of Rotterdam Zoo (Diergaarde Blijdorp) before and during the war. Kuiper senior had been a strong opponent of using zoo animals for entertainment of the public. This might have influenced the ideas of the son, and together with the new era of zoo development and husbandry this led to an end of the chimp tea parties. Today, Wellington Zoo’s chimpanzees live in a large outdoor park and new indoor home, which was completed in 2007.
In the 1970s a revival of interest in New Zealand’s indigenous species, such as the kiwi and tuatara led to the opening of the Zoo’s first nocturnal house in 1975.
The four elephants the zoo housed during its existence, provided entertainment to the public by offering rides on their back. New insights in animal behaviour, elephants should be ideally kept in herds of 4 – 5 as they are very social animals, and zoo objectives led to the decision in 1983 to that the zoo had neither the space nor the resources to keep elephants.
In the 1980s many old-fashioned concrete and barred cages were demolished and replaced by enclosures of modern design, while for the animal collection more attention was paid to endangered species instead of the many common species they had on display. Hence, species such as snow leopard, giraffe, sun bear, lemur, white-cheeked gibbon and Sumatran tigers joined the collection. In addition, breeding programmes were initiated for kiwi and tuatara. The next decade saw the launch of a total overhaul of the Zoo, but due to an economic recession this couldn’t be pursued and finalised. Nevertheless, it did deliver a brand new entrance building, which also housed a new zoo school, a gift shop and administrative quarters. December 1998 the exhibit called Tropical River Trail was opened which followed the newest design standards for enclosures to provide visitors a special experience by habitat immersion. This part starting directly after the entrance, including the primate islands, still exists, but lost the name Tropical River Trail.
A new major redevelopment started in 2002 followed by a grand opening of the new Asia section, a sponsored project, in September 2012. The Asia section includes the new Malayan Sun Bear exhibit, as well as the redeveloped Sumatran Tiger exhibit. On 22 October 2015 the final project of that redevelopment programme, Meet the Locals — celebrating New Zealand’s native species, was opened to the public. The brand new kea aviary walk-through experience, however, was completed and populated in 2017.
The Zoo is a not for profit charitable trust, and has been that way since 2003. The Trust runs the Zoo on behalf of Wellington City Council — the Zoo’s principal funder.
(Source: Wellington Zoo website (accessed 2002); Wellington Zoo annual reports; Encyclopedia of the World’s Zoos (ed. C.E. Bell, 2001); website The Animal Facts (accessed 25.12.2017); Wikipedia; ‘Het huis met de leeuwen’ by Tania Heimans, 2015)