Auckland’s first Zoo was in Onehunga


Auckland Zoo’s wild past

Imagine the outcry if a keeper at Auckland Zoo threw in a pukeko for a lion to eat. But practices like that were common in the city’s first zoo, Auckland Zoo’s predecessor, the Royal Oak Zoo. The businessman who founded that zoo, at Onehunga in 1911, also fed animals weka, and at one time placed a newspaper advertisement for “100 healthy cats”.

Source: Andre Hueber, The Aucklander,  Thursday, August 9, 2012

Of course, times have changed. These days you’ll see lions chowing down on a rabbit or joint of beef. And the zoo has become a must-visit place not just to see the animals but for events like Zoo Music and, right now, Zoolympics as well as various conservation education programmes.

Around 710,000 people pass through the zoo’s gates each year and walk across around 17ha to see the 850 animals on site.

You rarely hear a bad word said about it, but it wasn’t always like that.

The earlier incarnation, on Symonds St in Onehunga, wasn’t always popular with residents and was a battle for its founder John James Boyd from day one.

Take this letter to the NZ Herald in 1911: “War has been vigorously waged against the tiny rat, as being the medium of all plague infection; but to what insignificance does the [plague]rat sink in comparison to the zoo that is proposed to be opened in our midst. What with wild animals housed in the centre of a thickly populated district, making night hideous with their roars, and the highly offensive smell emitted from them, together with the smell from the carcasses on which they will be fed, threatens us with a fresh source of plague. As soon as the Zoo is started, not only will we have a few rats to contend with, but thousands of them in a very short space of time.”

Mr Boyd responded pretty well when he was backed into a corner. Which was fortunate, because it wasn’t just residents who opposed his plans, it was also the Onehunga Borough Council. In February 1911 he had purchased the land for the zoo, to move some of the animals from his other zoo – Aramoho in Wanganui – to Auckland. But after submitting his plans to the council a petition was started claiming the zoo would become a “breeding ground for rats”, leading to letters like the one above.

The council decided not to issue a permit until a proper drainage scheme, rat proofing and concrete floors had been installed. When the council found he’d started building, regardless, it took legal action. Mr Boyd agreed to their requests, was given a permit and the gates opened in November 1911.

“Onehunga Zoo is the place for a picnic. Plenty of boiling water free and plenty of fun,” the newspaper advertisements said. There was also a tea kiosk and amusements like the brass band, a merry-go-round, ocean wave and listed in the same advertorial sentence “a buffalo”.

Admission for adults was one shilling; children over 12 paid sixpence and under-12 were threepence.

Today you’ll pay $22 as an adult and children 4 to 14 pay $11. Under-4s are free, while seniors and students are $18.


At its peak, Royal Oak Zoo had more than 2000 animals, including lions, tigers, panthers, hyenas, bears, leopards, emus, baboons, monkeys – shipped from all over the world.

But before long, complaints came in about the foul smell of animals being slaughtered to feed the zoo’s creatures. Mr Boyd was fined after a council investigation found “horses, culled dairy cows and dogs from the pounds of neighbouring boroughs were being killed at the zoo site to feed the animals”.

In June 1912, 139 residents signed a petition asking for the Government to boost the council’s powers to close the zoo. The following year the Municipal Corporations Amendment Act was passed, enabling just that.

Once it came into effect, Mr Boyd was told he had 12 months to quit. But instead of downsizing, he bought more animals from Wainoni Park in Christchurch. The showdown polarised Auckland – some believed the zoo was educational, others thought it was cruel.

Historian Lisa Truttman’s book The Zoo Warfollows the saga, and she is giving talks about the zoo’s history as part of the Heritage Festival.

With the zoo’s notoriety increasing, the council received another petition with 2000 signatures, asking for the zoo to be kept open.

Mr Boyd tested the bylaw in 1915, with a doctor telling the court the zoo was “properly conducted and in no sense a nuisance”.

He lost, but in 1916 appealed and won. However a new law was passed specifically prohibiting lions, tigers, panthers, leopards, wolves or hyenas being kept in the borough. Mr Boyd was found to be in breach and fined £5 every day.
A public meeting was held and a unanimous decision was made to retain the zoo.

On April 14 1917, 1200 people marched to the zoo in support, headed by the Onehunga Brass Band.

Mr Boyd had become very popular by this time. So much so that he became mayor, but even then there were problems. He repealed the law on what animals could be kept, but it was found he voted when he shouldn’t have. He was fined £30 for not declaring a conflict of interest and lost his mayoral chains. He appealed, had his conviction upheld, then tried an appeal to the Privy Court, before finally giving up at age 72.

By 1922, the animals ended up being distributed around the country and the Auckland City Council paid £800 for some of them.

In December that year, it opened the new Auckland Zoo on the current site at Western Springs.

Ms Truttman says before Mr Boyd’s zoo opened, the only wild animals in Auckland were in menageries or travelling circuses. A Mr Robert Graham had a cage of monkeys and birds in Ellerslie Gardens and there were also wallabies and other animals held at Auckland Domain.

She says the Royal Oak Zoo attracted plenty of controversy, including the escape of a lion cub (it was attacked by a cow), a seal that was transported from Waihi Beach in a crate and died (it was exhibited anyway) and a monkey that bit off the tip of a young girl’s finger.

There were plenty of “family kerfuffles”, with Mr Boyd’s son Edward, a lion tamer, charged with damaging property at the zoo and threatening to let all the animals out of their cages. At one stage he attacked his father in a drunken stupor.

Despite all the drama, she says Mr Boyd was a “true Kiwi battler”. “He felt authority had no place in telling him as a businessman what to do.”

Auckland Zoo’s life sciences manager Kevin Buley says Mr Boyd’s approach to animals was a part of history but differs radically to how animals are managed in zoos today.

“If people walked around the zoos of yesteryear they’d find it disgusting and they’d be shut down in a week.”

He says John Boyd was a product of his time and wild animals are more endangered than they were at the first part of the 20th century.

“Back then it was just entertainment but the primary role now is wildlife conservation.”

The Auckland Zoo Conservation Fund provides financial support and staff to conservation projects in New Zealand and overseas, with part of the entry price contributing.

Mr Buley says the zoo has moved away from homing animals like polar bears or antelopes to a focus on endangered animals from South East Asia such as the orangutan.

The zoo supports the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Project with keepers travelling to Indonesia to assist the conservation of species in the wild.

Improvements to how animals were exhibited in Europe during the 1950s and 60s led to a better understanding of animal welfare. Auckland Zoo’s popular chimpanzee parties, in which chimps were dressed in human clothes and rode bikes, are an example of how times have changed.”That would no longer be considered acceptable by any stretch of the imagination.”

Mr Buley says the solution to filling zoos used to involve going to docks and picking up animals brought in by traders.

“The mortality rate used to be very high. Animals were seen as commodities – not as sensitive creatures that might feel pain and suffer. They often had diseases from the distress of capture – their immune systems would often crash.”

He says they were kept in caged or concrete environments that didn’t cater for their needs, fed any type of food and often poked by spectators with sticks and stones.

“Now we look at every aspect of an animal’s life, including habitat and diet – and do our best to replicate it.”

Hygiene standards have been improved by allowing waste to break down naturally in enclosures with deep soil or bark floors.

Auckland Zoo receives comments about noise but these days they are all positive.

“Neighbours tell us they love the sound of exotic animals on their doorstep – the lions roaring or the siamang apes singing across Western Springs. They’re the sounds of happy animals enjoying their lives.”

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