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The new zoo: from circus cages to swirling stages

This is a sneak peek of edition 23 of Traces!

By Natasha Cantwell, Public Record Office Victoria

Great leaps forward in design at Melbourne Zoo over the years were followed by tentative steps backwards, or even baffling moves in a whole new direction. These breakthroughs and missteps of the
19th and early 20th century can tell us a lot about the changing values of our society at that time. Should a monkey live in a concrete cage, a forest setting or a modern house? What seems obvious to us now wasn’t always!

Giraffes in the open air
At Melbourne Zoo (Australia’s oldest zoo), public entertainment initially took a back seat to the acclimatisation of livestock, game and songbirds; however, when Albert Le Souef became Melbourne Zoo Director in 1870, he began acquiring the monkeys, bears, lions and tigers that would draw in the crowds.

The animals were initially confined to old circus cages, and the sturdy concrete constructions that followed did little to increase their comfort. The big cats were still caged, and while the bears may have been able to see the sky, the tiny pits where they lived were just as bleak and barren. With lack of knowledge about animal health, zoos in this era were struggling to keep their residents alive for very long.

Simple concrete and metal enclosures were at least easy to keep clean, helping to minimise disease. It was Dudley Le Souef who brought the zoo enclosures into the modern era when he took over from his father in 1902. Dudley was greatly influenced by his trips to Europe and, in particular, Carl Hagenbeck.

To find out what happened next, read the latest edition of Traces.

Pictured: Two black bears begging in the bear yard, built in 1925. Photographed circa 1930s–1970s. Image courtesy of Public Record Office Victoria’s Photographic Collection (PROV, VPRS 14517/P1, item 54/C79)

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