With an animal-mad 10-year old son, my family and I took the opportunity to visit Australia Zoo north of Brisbane, ahead of the International Animal Welfare meeting on the Gold Coast. We were all incredibly impressed.
Australia Zoo is of course "home of the Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin who passed away two years ago. It is continuing to expand at an extraordinary pace. The whole experience was brilliant, but a few things stood out:
- Australia Zoo aims to promote conservation through "exciting education". That means close, hands on experience with the animals where possible. It is also the area where many wildlife people and conservationists express reservations about the Irwin style - many people feel the handling of the wildlife in the Crocodile Hunter series to go over the top. This visit convinced me that there is a heck of a lot of merit in the Irwin approach. Kids and adults alike are absolutely captivated by the keeper talks and the animal shows. The signage and display designs are as good as I've seen (and I was at San Diego Zoo earlier this year) and did fulfil the goal of "exciting education".
- The Keepers and in fact all staff, are extraordinary. I don't know if their attitude and enthusiasm flows from Steve and Terri Irwin's passion - whatever Australia Zoo is doing, it is working. We thought the positive attitude seemed to come through in the animals, and after attending the various sessions at the International Animal Welfare Conference afterwards, I'm convinced that's true.
- The grounds are incredibly clean and neat. The rainforest walk-through aviary would be a world-class showpiece simply for its gardens, let alone the bird life. Even though the Zoo is expanding, there was no construction interfering with current displays. The investment going into the place must be massive (no small task given it is an entirely privately funded Zoo).
The Irwins have a very strong view against native animal harvesting. That view is in contrast to many conservationists who see kangaroo and crocodile harvesting as a positive for the environment. There are strong arguments that kangaroo harvesting can reduce the carbon footprint and impact on soils if it replaces sheep or cattle farming. Certainly my 10-year old Sam quickly formed the opinion that the Irwins were on the right side of the argument: earlier this year he visited a commercial crocodile farm near Darwin and came away thinking the farming was simply too intensive, given the obvious injuries some of the animals were carrying. He much preferred the maximum two to a pen at Australia Zoo.
Finally, I was encouraged by the display and talks on feral animals. The camel and red fox information was completely correct, interesting and given in a manner sympathetic to the individual animals and balanced with the environmental consequences.
I thoroughly recommend a day (two would be better) at Australia Zoo. Even if you are cynical about Steve Irwin's presentation of wildlife, or the Irwin's views on some aspects of conservation, park those concerns for a day and see for yourself the amazing promotion of conservation going on up there.