New Zealand’s First Zoo

In 2006 Wellington Zoo turned 100, an important milestone for New Zealand’s first Zoo. The Zoo was established in 1906 after a group of residents petitioned the Wellington City Council to establish a Zoo for the people of Wellington. This petition coincided with the offer to the city of a young lion by the name of “King Dick” (named after Prime Minister Richard Seddon) by the Bostock and Wombwell Circus. King Dick was officially the Zoo’s first animal.

King Dick was soon joined by llama, emus and kangaroos to form the foundation of the Zoo and by 1912, Wellington Zoo housed over 500 animals. Over the last 100 years Wellington Zoo has housed hundreds of species, from hedgehogs and ferrets to leopards and elephants.

Zany Zoo Characters

Over the years Wellington Zoo has housed many interesting and quirky characters. These animals leave a lasting impression on Zoo visitors and provide them with some of their best memories.

  • Percy the pelican came to the Zoo in 1919 and made it into the Guinness book of records as one of the longest living birds in the world, making it to 62 years old.
  • In 1949 the Zoo received a grey gibbon named Nippy. Nippy was the Zoo’s longest serving resident, and the oldest gibbon in the world, before he passed away in September 2008.
  • Jimmy the orang-utan came to the Zoo in 1960. He was previously owned by a circus but came to the Zoo to be rehabilitated; he needed to be weaned off alcohol. He was an impressive animal weighing over 150kg and had an arm span of over 7 feet.
  • In 1999, the Zoo was home to a cheeky little otter named Clyde. Clyde was very good at escaping and one day decided he would leave the Zoo and explore the nearby suburb of Newtown. He was later moved to a secure enclosure at Mogo Zoo in Australia.

Chimpanzees and Elephants

Although Wellington Zoo has housed a large number of species; two in particular – chimpanzee and elephant - have had a huge influence on this Zoo’s history. In 1956, as a part of the Zoo’s 50th anniversary celebrations, three female chimpanzees arrived from London Zoo. A year later the females were joined by fours males and a breeding programme shortly followed. Chimp tea parties also started, they were a way of encouraging more people to come to the Zoo. The tea parties were very popular and up to 2,000 people would attend each chimpanzee tea party. The animals would play up as their keeper would try and serve them tea and fruit. The last tea party was in February 1970. Today, Wellington Zoo’s chimpanzees live in a large outdoor park and new indoor home, which was completed in 2007. 1927 was a big year for Wellington Zoo as it was the first time an elephant lived at the Zoo. Her name was Nellikuthra and she was an Asian elephant given to the Zoo by the Government of Madras. Since then the Zoo has had three other elephants, Maharanee, Nirvana, and probably the most remembered of all, Kamala. Many Zoo visitors remember going for rides on the elephants or watching them as the keepers took them for baths. In 1983 Kamala died, and, after a lot debate the Zoo decided not to get another elephant. Elephants should be ideally kept in herds of 4-5 as they are very social animals. Wellington Zoo does not have the space or resources to house elephants.

Evolving Zoo

Zoos are constantly evolving and changing, Wellington Zoo is no different. Up until the late 1970s and early 1980s most of Wellington Zoo’s enclosures were small and made with steel bars and had concrete floors. This was to make the enclosures easier to clean and helped to stop the spread of disease. With the advance of veterinary practices and changing attitudes towards animal welfare, the Zoo’s enclosures changed too. Today we try to build bigger, brighter, more natural environments for all of our animals. We now also have mixed species exhibits and we place a strong emphasis on enriching the animals’ lives, through various mental and physical stimuli. We are actively involved in international captive breeding programmes for both native and exotic endangered species. Equally important is the Zoo's role in raising visitors' awareness of the importance of the conservation of its resident species through keeper talks, signage and other activities. The purpose of Wellington Zoo has also changed. What used to be a place of entertainment is now a place of learning, fun and conservation.