No one spoke for the lions


Image above: ‘Melbourne Zoo’, 1 photographic print : stereograph, gelatin silver ; 8.8 x 16.6 cm, creator N.J. Claire 1837-1918, State Library of Victoria, H2014.184/129

NO MORE lazy lions at Melbourne Zoo! The heritage-listed 1967 Lion Park has been demolished. A Predator Precinct, housing African lions, African wild dogs and Philippines crocodiles, will replace it.

The precinct will have it all: ‘a habitat-led immersive environment’; ‘a close-up and habitat-immersed visitor animal viewing points (utilizing animal containment options such as moats, specialized glazing and mesh) in lieu of overhead viewing’; comfortable, naturalistic environments’; ‘upgraded holding and care facilities’; ‘integrated and accessible circulation paths’; and ‘a new multi-function visitor centre’.

Cages are out and ‘animal containment options’ are in. Gawping is out too. Rather, visitors will be immersed in the predators’ habitats, their ‘comfortable, naturalistic environments’.

The quotes come from Zoos Victoria’s Heritage Impact Statement. The 13-page statement, submitted to Heritage Victoria in December 2013, acknowledged that the Lion Enclosure was innovative when it opened almost 50 years ago because, for the first time, it was the visitors who were put in a cage.

The entire Royal Melbourne Zoological Gardens (at Elliott Avenue, Royal Park since 1860) is on the Victorian Heritage Register because of its ‘social, historic, architectural and scientific significance to the State of Victoria’ but the Lion Enclosure was one of several structures singled out in the Heritage Victoria report as an especially significant example of mid to late twentieth century zoo buildings and structures. It had its own code: Registered Heritage Place H1074 B10. The Orang-utan and Monkey House ‘now retained without animals as “historic” buildings’, the Octagonal Aviary and the Giraffe House also get a mention.

Perhaps your memories of the Lion Park are as intense as mine? You walked up the stairs or ramp to a concrete bridge that was enclosed in wire mesh. You were confined – often squashed between multiple double-prams, picnic hampers and menacing toddlers high on Tiny Teddies and Paddle Pops – while down below the lions roamed free. Or, as was more often the case, lay on their sides in the sun, a golden pile of magnificence, unbothered by us silly humans suspended in our ugly cage above them.

I loved it. The dynamic felt right. We humans were cramped up in a little cage, but the animals luxuriated in the scrubby grass. The lion’s share of the zoo went to the lions! The King of the Jungle, Aslan, the beast whose name is code for bravery and great strength, whose collective noun is pride, whose den tested Daniel, we deserved to be caged next to such an animal.

No more. The dignity of distance is dated. Now the zoo’s mission is to provide ‘powerful experiences that facilitate emotional connections between visitors and wildlife’.

I became aware of plans for the Predator Precinct when I clipped out a display ad from The Age late last year. It said Zoos Victoria had lodged an application with Heritage Victoria seeking permission ‘under Section 67 of the Heritage Act’ to demolish the Lion Park. People had 14 days to respond.

I meant to follow this up but never did. Then I took two of my children to the zoo and we saw that the park had already gone. All that is left is the sign. I contacted Heritage Victoria to ask for copies of public submissions but there were none. No one spoke for the lions or their old home, once so progressive, now old hat.

Indeed, I read that the zoo considered the Lion Park an ‘expired’ asset, a place that had ‘reached the end of its asset lifecycle and poses constraints on the ability to optimize animal enrichment, visitor enjoyment and day to day operations’.

As the zoo’s impact statement explained: ‘The current Lion Bridge, whilst novel at the time, does not foster close up views. Even the perspective of “looking down” on animals is no longer favoured in the zoo industry. Instead, exhibits that bring visitors to the same level as the animals, where their size, strength and key features are apparent are preferred’.

I’m sure the new precinct will be better for staff and animals but I am also disturbed by how quickly history is being erased at the zoo and how many assumptions are hidden in the appalling gobbledegook of the impact statement.

The old lion bridge could hold too few people. It got congested. Visitors had to go slowly along it. But slowness is a problem when you have 1.2 million visitors a year. ‘All zoo precincts are being developed as one-way paths as a key strategy in moving large volumes of visitors through the zoo,’ the document says.

‘Melbourne Zoo is committed to celebrating its history,’ is a phrase that appears twice in the impact statement and in bold type too. There is absolutely no evidence of this commitment right now. In fact, the zoo appears to be determined to erase the past rather than celebrate or even acknowledge it. The Lion Park was beautiful. The Lion Park is gone. We have been let out of our cage and a ‘variety of close-up and habitat-immersed visitor animal viewing points’ awaits us.

Image below: ‘Lion in Royal Park Melbourne’, 1860-1930, from a collection of lantern slides compiled by Roger Holdsworth, State Library of Victoria, H2012.90/77 



About rachelbuchanan2000

Journalist, historian, mum. 'Stop Press: the last days of newspapers' (Scribe, 2013). Creative fellow, State Library of Victoria. Project: 'The Melbourne Sirius' an artist newspaper (2014). First book, 'The Parihaka Album: Lest We Forget' (Huia, 2009). New project, about doctors and doctorhood, is on the go now.
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