Perth Zoo’s founding director Ernest Le Souef sometimes kept snakes in the oven of his home on the grounds of the South Perth park to keep them warm.
His great-granddaughter Anna Le Souef, who is one of the zoo’s veterinarians, said that was not the only story she remembered about her ancestor.
“One of the stories was when they needed to go and pick up a group of flamingos from the port, and my great-grandfather took one of the girls, one of his daughters with them, and she recalls being sat in the back with the flamingos on the way back to the zoo,” she said.
“Obviously, things would be done pretty differently now.”
On the 120th anniversary of the zoo’s opening, a wander through its 17-hectare grounds shows how radically it has changed since it opened in 1898.
The first exhibits included small, barred caves for a sun bear and a golden jackal — which have been preserved to show how not to care for animals — and other bleak enclosures with no natural surrounds.
“It’s so different now,” Ms Le Souef said.
“I think they did the best they knew how to in those days, they had the best intentions.
“But our ideas of animal welfare and conservation are entirely different now, so it’s a very different place, but I guess the same spirit.”
Dingos and other wild dogs are kept in natural surroundings at Perth Zoo. (ABC News: Nicolas Perpitch)
Wild dogs including an albino fox once had primitive, rocky enclosures at the zoo. (ABC News)
‘It’s not a concrete box anymore’
Ric Dunlop started working at the zoo more than 30 years ago and now supervises the elephants and other large animals.
“Pretty much as I started in ’88, zoos were moving into what you see here,” he said.
“It’s not a concrete box anymore, aesthetically it looks much better. It’s got better design principles for trying to give the animals what they need as enrichment, as housing, and of course we supply all medications.”
The evolution of the zoo has seen keepers move from basic care for a wide variety of animals to highly specialised care for one group of animals.
Animal welfare is the highest priority, and the keepers try to create enclosures that simulate natural environments which are healthy for the animals.
Animals are ‘ambassadors’ for their species
Conservation programs to preserve natural habitats and fight poachers, along with breeding programs for endangered species, are also a crucial part of the zoo’s work.
It has managed to bring western swamp turtles back from extinction, and also works with numbats and other Australian mammals and reptiles.
The zoo is also part of an international program to re-introduce a wild population of orangutans into the Sumatran jungle.
There are still sun bears at the zoo, but they are rescue animals. One of them, Jamran, was brought to Perth after being found tied to a pole outside a restaurant in Thailand, where his paws would have been used for soup.
“[The zoo] still holds the entertainment value, but there’s a huge focus on conservation in the whole collection that we hold,” Mr Dunlop said.
“I think people need to understand that these guys are kept more or less as an ambassador for their species, and the zoo industry invariably is putting money into programs that are conservation-based outside of the zoo and potentially in South East Asia and Africa.”