In a man-made pond tucked away in an area of Perth Zoo inaccessible to the public, a tiny western swamp tortoise inquisitively pops his head above water. He’s noticed he has human visitors—a rare sight—and wants to get a better look. He makes eye contact with one of the human onlookers and doesn’t break his gaze. He’s equal parts curious and cautious. But he seems to know he’s safe.
Very few small wild animals would be bold enough to engage an unknown visitor in a staring contest. This tortoise must know he has nothing to fear in his current home. But what he doesn’t know is why his housing feels so secure. His survival is of great importance to Perth Zoo.
Currently, fewer than 50 mature adult western swamp tortoises remain in the wild. Their species is listed as critically endangered, and they were considered extinct for more than 100 years. This juvenile male is part of an 181-strong ‘insurance colony’ housed at the Zoo.
It has partnered with Friends of the Western Swamp Tortoise, the Parks and Wildlife Service, and the University of Western Australia to help restore western swamp tortoise populations in the wild as part of a breed-and-release program. The humans who have piqued the juvenile tortoise’s interest are members of these groups on a tour of the breeding facility. They’re delighted to see the insurance colony thriving. And in a meeting between the groups, the Zoo boasts its findings and success rates.
On its website, Perth Zoo lists conservation as one of its core roles. And if the western swamp tortoise breeding facility is anything to go by, it seems to be taking its role seriously. Australia has one of the worst track records in the world when it comes to fauna and biodiversity loss, and zoos across the country have positioned themselves to be on the frontline of conservation efforts.
Of course, Perth Zoo’s focus has not always been on conservation. At almost 125 years old, it has gone through many different iterations and has reinvented itself multiple times. In a series of historical talks for the City of South Perth, local history librarian Anthony Styan describes Perth Zoo’s evolution as “an experiment of empire to ‘malodorous eyesore’, to prestige project, to conservation hub.”
Not all of its phases have resonated with the public nor its animals. It has faced criticism and failure over the years and has been the subject of accusations of mistreatment. And in a world that is becoming increasingly concerned about the treatment of animals, zoos have to work hard to prove their usefulness, justify their existence, and demonstrate they are doing the right thing.
As Perth Zoo looks towards its 125th birthday on October 17, can it now say it’s older and wiser? After much trial and error, has it finally found its purpose?
‘Experiment of empire’
“They saw it as a civic institution,” Styan says. “Imagine London without their zoo, or Berlin without their zoo. It’s part of saying you’ve made it.”
Established in the late-1800s, Perth Zoo, like many zoos of that era, stemmed from a “colonial experiment,” according to Styan. If a place had been conquered by a European power, a zoo would eventually be erected. It was also a way for colonies to collect and study the native fauna and flora they were discovering.
To make money, the Zoo opened to the public on October 17, 1898. Styan characterises the earliest version of the public-facing zoo as more of a “stationary circus”; complete with merry-go-rounds, go-carts, “little trains”, a tennis court, and even a place to get a Swedish massage and a mineral bath.
It was a hub for the public to gather and a source of entertainment, with little focus on animal welfare.
Styan thinks this era is an important part of the Zoo’s history and shouldn’t be forgotten. He believes remembering the less palatable versions of the Zoo helps the public to appreciate its progression, even though the Zoo’s current management prefers to focus on the present. “I know they don’t like it,” Styan says. “They tend to shy away from showing old photographs of polar bears in cages and things like that. I think it’s a continuum. You don’t really talk about ‘the old way and the new way’ because it builds on top to get there.”
Fun for humans, not for animals
Members of the Facebook group ‘Perth Reflects’ remember a zoo that seems far removed from the zoo of today. One member of the group recalls “the monkey that smoked.”
Styan confirms this was common at one time. Visitors would toss their cigarettes into enclosures. “And that’s what a chimp will do, it’ll copy whatever’s going on—which is not good because they can have nicotine addictions like we do,” he says. Nevertheless, it was once a part of the zoo experience and Styan says many posters featured chimpanzees smoking cigarettes.
Many Perth Reflects members recall experiences riding elephants at the Zoo in the early- to mid-1900s. Styan says elephants in the 1930s and 1940s were brought into the Zoo for the sole purpose of entertainment. Articles from that era record the life of elephants like Rene and Congolene, forced to give rides and perform tricks for the public.
Over time, attitudes started to shift with generational changes. Styan says by the 1950s and 1960s, zookeepers, animal welfare experts, and others in the zoological field, were recognising that animals should be cared for. Enrichment started to become the Zoo’s main priority.
The happiness of captive animals
As shifting societal attitudes demand higher standards for captive animal welfare, zoos have found themselves subject to public scrutiny. Perth Zoo has dealt with its share. Zoo founder Ernest Le Souef was forced to respond to public criticism about enclosure conditions and the ethics of animal captivity as early as 1926. More recently, a 2016 Change.org petition called for Perth Zoo to end its ‘ele-art’, criticising the Zoo for normalising the use of elephants as a source of entertainment.
Groups like Animals Australia argue animals are not truly happy in captivity. However, University of Adelaide PhD candidate Jessica Turner says the question of animal happiness is complicated.
Turner is currently researching animal welfare with a focus on reptile captivity. She says a captive animal’s happiness depends on a variety of factors, including: the type of animal; the conditions of the enclosure—adequate space and environmental complexity being essential; enrichment availability; and the ability to demonstrate agency—to choose when they are and are not visible to the public.
According to its latest annual report, Perth Zoo commenced an animal welfare review in 2022 for all animals at its facility. With the death of the beloved elephant Tricia in 2022, it made the decision to relocate its two remaining elephants to a larger facility in South Australia; acknowledging that its own enclosure was no longer appropriate for the pair.
Turner says while being in a zoo may not be some animals’ first choice, it’s important to remember animals are under threat in the wild. Habitat destruction and the illegal wildlife trade are two of the biggest human-driven threats to animals, making conservation- and rehabilitation-focused zoos necessary.
A last hope
Griffith University senior lecturer and conservation scientist Ali Chauvenet says humans have damaged the environment to such a point that modern zoos have, in some cases, become the “last bastion” for the survival of a species.
Dr Chauvenet says society needs to halt land clearing and habitat destruction, act on climate change, and reduce pollution to give wild animal populations a chance to recover. In the meantime, modern zoos have a crucial role to play.
She says zoos, like Perth Zoo, have become important research hubs, particularly for developing breeding programs for captive species.
She also believes zoos help to educate the public and raise awareness. “Zoos often attract children. And we know that children play a massive role in their parents’ behaviour,” Dr Chauvenet says. “So if you’re able to reach children, to expose them to all of these fantastic species conservation stories, sustainability stories, then we can actually influence what the parents are doing; changing people’s behaviour.”
With age, comes maturity
Styan believes Perth Zoo has adapted well to a changing world and has taken its newfound responsibility as a “preservation and conservation institution” seriously.
Friends of the Western Swamp Tortoise chairperson Jan Bant agrees.
In addition to the insurance colony housed at the Zoo, Bant says Perth Zoo has helped to breed and release more than 800 juvenile western swamp tortoises back into the wild. And while those numbers cannot yet be recorded as part of the official western swamp tortoise population—the tortoises are still too young to be counted—it inspires confidence in the breed-and-release program.
Bant is extremely grateful. Additionally, she says the Zoo’s research efforts have helped others to understand these animals.
“When the first tortoises were retrieved from the wild and put into the Perth Zoo, [their keepers] didn’t even know what they ate. They didn’t know they aestivated [went dormant in the hottest months]. They didn’t know their life cycle. It was a very hit-and-miss situation,” she says.
“Now they can do the husbandry and they can do it well. If the animals get hurt, they know what to do. So, over 50 years, we’ve come to a situation where we know what [the tortoises] want and we know how to give it to them.”
Caring for the juvenile western swamp tortoises at the breeding facility has created some unintended work for the zookeepers. “Like humans, some of [the tortoises] are lazy,” Bant laughs. She says the “lazy” tortoises sometimes require zookeepers to make artificial tunnels for them to burrow down and aestivate underground; they don’t do it themselves, unlike their more motivated kin. However, she says this additional task has helped all those involved understand the tortoises on a deeper level. They now know that these cheeky reptiles can learn how to do things if taught.
It’s an observation that may not have been made if not for the work of Perth Zoo.
Styan thinks this is where the Perth Zoo’s future lies: “I think that their strengths are really in their conservation programs, so hopefully it will evolve a little bit in that direction.”
All things considered, at 125 years old, Styan thinks the Zoo has aged well.
“I think it’s something precious and we should be proud of it,” he says.
Perth Zoo was approached and declined to comment.
Perth Zoo celebrates 125 years on October 17. Visitors can learn more about its history at the Memory Lane heritage trail.