Not just another local park

Having lived in Alice Springs for the last little while, it had been a number of years since I last set foot inside Melbourne Zoo. So, despite the drizzly rain, I was quite excited to be at the gates right on 9:00am. I had maintained my zoo membership while I lived interstate and so my entry was free. Currently costing $88 per year (I happily consider it a donation to a worthy conservation cause), membership gains you unlimited free entry into all three of Victoria’s Zoos – Melbourne, Werribee Open Range and Healesville Sanctuary as well as reciprocal free entry into Taronga, Western Plains, Adelaide, Montaro and Perth Zoos. Three visits a year is all you need to make it worth the money, and with fickle nieces and nephews who may want to spend anywhere between ten minutes and five hours at the zoo, it becomes an extremely pleasant park to visit on a whim. 

Although I have not been to very many of the zoos in Australia or overseas, Melbourne Zoo is my favourite. Perhaps it is the sentimentality of it being the first zoo I remember going to as a child, perhaps it is the history of the place - being the oldest zoo in Australia and opened in 1862 with its heritage listed buildings, maybe it is their support of an extensive range of conservation projects both in Australia and internationally. Whatever the reason, I love going to Melbourne Zoo.

As a regular visitor, I used to be able to easily navigate my way around the enclosures, but there had been some major changes since my last visit. The award-winning Lemur Island, opened in mid 2014, is positioned prominently near the main entrance. Looking like a giant woven basket, the entrance contains a pair of electronic doors to act as an airlock, preventing the animals escaping. Once inside however, there are no further fences, bars or windows separating you from these distinctive Madagascan primates. You are free to wander the paths and boardwalks amongst the Ring-tailed Lemurs (Lemur catta), who are seemingly unconcerned by human presence. 

Preparing themselves for the steady stream of visitors that would move through their enclosure, the lemurs took great care grooming their fur, paying special attention to their characteristic tails. Their fur looks deliciously thick and soft, inspiring a great desire to run one’s fingers through it, which probably explain the presence of zoo staff in the enclosure at all times. I have no doubt that the thought of smuggling one of these beautiful animals out in a pram or backpack has crossed the mind of many visitors! 

Bidding a fond farewell to the lemurs, I followed the paths through the African Rainforest section and visited the Western Lowland Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), Pygmy Hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis), the somewhat intimidating Mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx) and finally into the treetop boardwalks of the canopy monkeys and apes. Here the challenge is to take photographs through glass, difficult in itself but made more so by the countless smears and handprints left by other enthusiastic visitors. 

The Trail of the Elephants, the Asian section of the zoo, was how I remembered it with incredible views of the Sumatran Tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) from a bridge, again with neither glass nor fences to impede your sightings. The Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) herd had grown by one member, a very playful and expert swimmer named Man Jai. This little, furry, bull elephant played confidently in the water with his big sister Mali. Both juveniles fully submerging for surprisingly long periods of time, only to emerge some distance away. I had no idea that elephants could swim underwater. It was a delight to watch them play alongside the adults.

The Butterfly House, as part of the The Elephant Trail, was also exactly as I remembered - hot, humid and chocker-block full of butterflies! Perfect excuse to bust out the ol’ macro lens. Unfortunately I was with a group who were far less interested in the butterflies than I was and so I did not have enough time to really get my camera settings right. An excellent excuse for a return visit!

The other major change to Melbourne Zoo was the brand new African Lion (Panthera leo) and African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) enclosures. Lion Gorge, as it is called, only opened in December last year and is still waiting for its third display species of the Philippines Crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis). The old, caged overpass is gone and has been replaced by a wide path between the two main sections. Glass is prominent, replacing tightly meshed fencing. So once again, not only can you see the animals more clearly, but if they so choose, you can get much closer to them as well.

I am always impressed by Melbourne Zoo’s constant push for better quality enclosures. Certainly better for the visitors, but hopefully better for the animals as well. 

But it not just the exotic animals and their enclosures that make Melbourne Zoo such a great place to visit. The gardens between the exhibits are beautifully maintained and wild birds are free to come and go as they please. Common Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) and Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris) wander the grounds freely alongside native Dusky Moorhens (Gallinula tenebrosa), Australian Pelicans (Pelecanus conspicillatus) and Nankeen Night Herons (Nycticorax caledonicus). Bell Miners (Manorina melanophrys) and Rainbow Lorikeets (Trichoglossus haematodus) are also common visitors to the Zoo as are many other species local to Royal Park in general. 

So as far as a local park goes, only a ten minute bike or short tram ride away from my house, Melbourne Zoo is a great place to spend a day. I look forward to making up for lost time and making frequent visits with specific challenges in mind. Butterflies one day, flowers and plants another, perhaps free flying birds on another. The possibilities are wide and varied and I hope to take full advantage of them all.