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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Zoo History: Strangers in a Strange Land

"If it lives, we want it"
- Edward Wilson, Victorian Acclimatisation Society

Many of the modern European zoos had their origins in the royal menageries of Europe - the London Zoo from the Tower of London Menagerie, the Jardin des Plantes from the French kings' menagerie at Versailles.  Many of the modern American zoos began as collections of pets and other animals donated by the public.  The zoos of Africa and Asia developed around colonial port cities.

Then there are the zoos of Australia.  In some ways their origin stories mirror those of the rest of the world... with an unusual, added twist.

Today, Australia is famed for its unique wildlife, found nowhere else in the world - kangaroos, koalas, wombats.  From the time of its discovery to the present, this wildlife has confounded the rest of the world.  It also had the effect of severely unnerving the new colonists of the land... as well as disappointing them.  Kangaroos and koalas had no special value in the eyes of the newly-minted Australians.  They had no practical economic value.  Worse yet, for the transplanted Britons and Scots and Irish... they were just really weird.

To correct both of these perceived shortfalls, the founding fathers of nineteenth century Australia formed what became known as Assimilation Societies.  These societies were established with the purpose of introducing new species of plant and animal to Australia.  Some of these species would be introduced for economic purposes, like agriculture, others for game or sport (trout were one of the longest-lasting acclimatization schemes), and others still for ornamentation... just to remind folks born in Europe of home sweet home.

And lest we look too critically upon the Australians, let's remember that we Americans came very close to something similar at about the same time with our flirtation with hippo ranching.

Some of these species, such as water buffalo and camel, still roam the Australian Outback.  Others, like ostrich, never really took off.  Others plague Australia today, decimating its native fauna (although these societies were not responsible for the introduction of European rabbits, a species which they took some blame for).  One of the most bizarre schemes involved the importation and release of the secretarybird - a long-legged African raptor famed for its skill in dispatching snakes - to control the venomous snakes which so terrified nineteenth-century Australians,

Nor were such efforts limited to animals.  Various plants were also introduced to Australia with mixed results.  Blackberries were considered an economic asset when they were initially introduced.  Soon they were considered an invasive pest. 

Cashmere goats at the zoo in Royal Park, Australian News for Home Readers, 1863
Source: State Library of Victoria

Before the acclimatization societies could do too much damage, they fell out of favor.  Even by the dawn of the twentieth century, these organizations began to face criticisms for the risks that they posed to native species (which began to slowly but surely become a point of pride for Australians).  Anyway, most of the released species - from agoutis to boa constrictors (yet another introduction intended to control smaller snakes) - failed.  While some species thrive in new habitats, free from the constraints of natural predators and diseases, just as many (perhaps more) take a few steps outside of their shipping crate and die... or fail to find food, or succumb to an alien climate, or meet native predators, or come to one of several other bad ends,

So... acclimatization efforts are drawing to a close, but you still have ark-loads of animals that you will no longer be releasing into the Outback?  Instead, these acclimatization societies became zoos.

Today, Australia is one of the most protective nations in the world when it comes to its wildlife treasures.  It's easier to get blood from a stone, it's been said, than getting animals out of Australia (legally).  Likewise, Australia also makes it extremely difficult to introduce animals into their country.  A long series of invasives - from the rabbit to the cane toad - have taught them that.

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