Words and Photos by Nick McIndoe
New Zealand’s first Zoo, Wellington Zoo, is a very special place. Founded in 1906, the Zoo has run as a not-for-profit charitable trust since 2003, and is home to over 100 species of fauna from across the globe. Some of these are unique to New Zealand zoos too – sun bears, dingoes and caracal, and from my recent visit, it is obvious that animal care, conservation and education are at the heart of Wellington Zoo.
Two Malayan sun bears, Sean, and daughter Sasa call Wellington Zoo home – they are currently the only bears in New Zealand.
Sean arrived at the Zoo in 2004, and is now approximately 20 years old. Born in the wild, Sean was rescued from outside a restaurant in Cambodia by the Free the Bears Fund in 1996, and was one of the first bears rescued by the Fund after its formation in 1995. Sean initially went to Perth Zoo, before coming to Wellington and he sired Sasa in 2006, making Wellington Zoo the first zoo in Australasia to successfully breed a sun bear.
In 1993, Perth grandmother Mary Hutton, was watching a TV segment that contained horrifying footage of thousands of bears, being held in coffin sized cages throughout Asia, unable to move, with dirty catheters inserted into their gall bladder. Cubs are taken from the wild and the bears are regularly milked for their bile to feed the demand for bear bile, which has been used in traditional Asian medicines for centuries.
The next day, Mary drew up a petition and stood at the local shopping mall, collecting signatures to help “free the bears”. Within months, Mary had thousands of signatures and on 23 March 1995, Free the Bears Fund was registered as a not-for-profit charity; petitions were delivered to the Chinese Embassy in Canberra, raffles, film nights and other events were organised to raise funds and awareness about the plight of Asia’s bears.
Australian businessman John Stephens had rescued a number of sun bears from Cambodian restaurants where they faced being butchered for bear paw soup. Stephens’ work however, was drawing him back to Australia and the bears needed a new home. He wrote to Mary, who organised for the sun bears to be brought to Australia to start a regional breeding program, and, recognising that many more bears in Cambodia needed help, began construction of the Cambodian Bear Sanctuary at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Centre Rescue Centre – now the world’s largest sun bear sanctuary.
Free the Bears Fund is now involved in projects throughout South-east Asia and even India, and works to protect, preserve and enrich the lives of bears throughout the world, through education, fighting the illegal wildlife trade and providing sanctuary for rescued bears.
Sean and Sasa are ambassadors for their species at Wellington Zoo, but are also part of a regional breeding programme. This means that either of them could be moved to another zoo for breeding purposes if a recommendation came from the species’ Studbook Keeper, says the Zoo’s Animal Care Manager, Jo Richardson.
At 120-150 cm long and weighing 30-80 kg (males are slightly larger than females), the sun bear is the smallest of the bears, so named for the golden marks on their chest that resemble the rising sun. Sun bears are also known as the “honey bear” because of their voracious appetite for honeycombs and honey.
Sasa shows off the distinctive sun-like markings that give sun bears their name. Sasa is easy to tell apart from her father Sean, as her markings are a full circle, whereas Sean only has a half “sun”.
Classified as “Vulnerable” by the International Union of Conservation for Nature (IUCN), sun bears are under threat from habitat loss due to unsustainable palm oil plantations, poaching, and the illegal wildlife trade.
Wellington Zoo raises funds to support Free the Bears projects in Cambodia and Vietnam. Visitors can make a donation to Free the Bears through the Wellington Zoo Conservation Fund says Jo; “People will protect what they love and through Sean we have a genuine connection to Free the Bears.
“Another thing we do is give staff ‘conservation leave’, where they can take their skills from looking after Sean and Sasa to Free the Bears projects in Cambodia and Vietnam, and in return, bring new skills back to the Zoo.”
Hopping “Across the Ditch” now, there are two pairs of dingoes at Wellington Zoo – Kora and Burnum, and Wolfrik and Yindi.
Jo says that as far as they are aware, their dingoes are “pure” dingo – something of a rarity now, due to genetic pollution: interbreeding with domestic dogs has “diluted” the dingo’s unique adaptations to the Australian environment, and they are listed as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN. Some of the interbreeding is controlled, while in some cases, domestic dogs have gone feral and mated with dingoes.
Although the dingo’s exact origins are unclear, both it (Canis lupis dingo), and the domestic dog (Canis lupis familiaris), are subspecies of the grey wolf (Canis lupis). It is thought that dingoes descended from semi-domesticated dogs from East or South Asia, and returned to a wild lifestyle once introduced to Australia.
The dingo is the largest terrestrial predator in Australia and is endemic to that continent. For these reasons, Jo describes the dingoes at Wellington Zoo as incredible ambassadors for their species.
“In the wild they have a bit of a bad reputation, especially with livestock farmers. However, they are only found in Australia, so it is important to protect them, and our four dingoes give people an incredible opportunity to understand dingoes”.
Although dingoes and the domestic dog are genetically very similar, there are some differences. Pure dingoes are a certain colour and size – typically around 60cm tall, 130cm long and weighing 20kg. The fur is a sandy to reddish brown, but can be tan or light brown, with white on the chest, muzzle, tag, legs and paws. White/cream (not albino) and melanistic individuals have been reported.
Male dingoes play a big role in raising the pups, and dingoes howl a lot more than domestic dogs. But do they bark? “The jury is still out on that one”, says Jo.
“Maybe it is a strategy they have learnt not to bark, to avoid detection. After all, a bark is easier to tell direction from than a howl”.
Wellington Zoo is home to four “pure” dingoes – Australia’s endemic wild dog.
The two caracal sisters at Wellington Zoo are the only caracals in Australasia, and once again are incredible ambassadors for their species.
The caracal looks very similar to the lynx, but its closest relatives are the serval and African golden cat. Although the caracal is sometimes known as the ‘desert lynx’, it is actually found throughout Africa, Central Asia, and south-west Asia into India, occupying a vast range of habitats from semi-desert areas to forests.
Caracals are a really cool animal to have at Wellington Zoo. For example, their long back legs allow them to jump up to 3m in the air to catch prey!
They also have black tufts on the back of their ears, which they use to get closer to prey – the tufts can sense vibrations. They also have little tufts of hair between their toes to spread their weight on sandy substrates.
Caracals are listed as “Least Concern” by the IUCN – the main threats being human conflict with livestock farmers, and habitat destruction in Asia.
Caracals can jump 3m in the air and have black tufts on their ears – two adaptations that help them catch birds, which appear to form a large part of their diet. The name Caracal is believed to have come from the Turkish Karakulak, which means “black ears”.
Jo describes the caracals as a really “sassy” cat, and says that with all three species – caracals, dingoes and sun bears, the most challenging, albeit, enjoyable aspect of her job is constantly finding new ways to enrich their lives and give them the opportunity to express their natural abilities.
“For example, with the caracals we will place enrichment items high in the trees, and find ways to test their ear senses too.
“Sun bears are intelligent and very energetic – Sean in particular is a very excitable bear! These bears have poor eyesight but great hearing and a fantastic sense of smell, so the challenge is finding ways to test their cognitive ability and their senses. Every day at 2pm, there is a sun bear talk/feed, which is great husbandry training for the keepers and bears – allows a non-invasive health check, and of course great enrichment for Sean and Sasa”.
The 2pm Sun Bear Talk is an excellent opportunity for keepers to perform health checks on the bears, while telling visitors about their plight in the wild. Sean (left) is a very excitable bear, especially around food, and certainly proves that chivalry is not part of his nature, as daughter, Sasa (right) waits her turn.
Wellington Zoo’s wildlife hospital, The Nest Te Kōhanga opened in 2009. Since then the team have treated over 430 native wildlife patients, 57% of which have been successfully returned to the wild.
Not just native animals either, the hospital is a great supporter of international conservation projects too, and when unique species such as turtles or emperor penguins (think “Happy Feet”) arrive for treatment, it is great for the staff as it broadens the experience of what is already an “amazing” team says Jo.
Another great feature of Te Kōhanga is the talks, where Zoo visitors can actually watch check-ups or surgeries on animals and ask the vets questions. Most people will never get to see a lion or a chimpanzee that close says Jo. In fact, on the day of my visit, Yindi the Dingo is in for some minor surgery – I had certainly never seen a dingo that close – beautiful animal!
With over 260,000 visitors passing through the Zoo’s gates in the last year, Wellington Zoo is fast reaching its aim of becoming the “Best Little Zoo in the World”. Certainly during my visit, I was impressed by the relaxed yet professional feel of the Zoo. All the animals looked happy and well cared for; the enclosures were large, clean and naturalistic, and it is obvious that animal care/welfare, conservation and education are the highest priorities of all staff.
All the enclosures at Wellington Zoo are naturalistic, including a waterfall, reminiscent of the sun bears’ natural Malayan habitat.
Wellington Zoo is home to some unique animals, and in exciting news, there may be more to come! Subject to funding, the Zoo is hoping to acquire snow leopards in the next few years. Wellington Zoo has had snow leopards before, and Jo calls them her favourite big cat – mine too!
Jo has been lucky enough to work with snow leopards before and says it would be “awesome” if Wellington Zoo were to get them – “Even though we work with them by protected contact, they are not as highly strung as other leopards, and more interactive!”
The Zoological Society of Auckland would like to thank Wellington Zoo, especially Ash Howell and Jo Richardson for their assistance with this article.
Wellington Zoo could soon be home to snow leopards!