Zoological Gardens of Australia

  Zoological Gardens of Australia, Chapter 7, in Zoo and aquarium history: ancient animal collections to zoological gardens, edited by Vernon Kisling (pp. 181-213)

Extract from the review in the International Zoo News, vol.48, no. 3, 2001, by John Tuson

In this massively ambitious volume, Vernon Kisling has marshalled a team of zoo historians from around the world into producing a comprehensive international history of zoos… A historian’s job is to take random stories, random events, and spot the pattern which they form.  Too often in this book that pattern is not spotted, and so much attention is paid to the individual trees that we get no real picture of the entire forest. 

One notable exception is the chapter on the zoos of Australia, written by Catherine de Courcy, which, because it does attempt to take a broader view of zoo history, is by some distance the most satisfying chapter in the book.  In some ways de Courcy’s task was easier than that of the other writers: while those who wrote about zoos in Britain, Western Europe or the U.S.A. needed to consider several hundred zoos, to say nothing of the many pre-zoo animal collections, de Courcy had only to look at half a dozen or so major collections. 

But in doing so, she really does manage to show how and why Australia’s zoos developed as they have. 

The initial impetus – the acclimatization movement – largely explains the foundation of the country’s major urban zoos, and a remarkable family – the Le Souefs – played an important part in their subsequent development.  De Courcy traces the pattern of Australian zoo history through the stages of foundation and development, then the difficult period of 1920-1960 when zoos stagnated, and then the modern period during which Australian zoos have progressed to a position among the world’s best. 

Having read her chapter, one does not simply have a string of facts (first tapir born, first anteater displayed, first bear cage built), but rather an understand of Australia’s zoos and their history – and it is the provision of such an understanding that should be the historian’s primary task.