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IS AUSTRALIA ZOO AN ETHICAL PLACE TO VISIT? WE HEADED TO THE IRWINS' ZOO NEAR BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA


Australia Zoo is top of many people's bucket list when it comes to a trip to Australia. The Zoo that was made famous by Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, is still run by his widow and children today. This was a place that Mike and I had been keen to visit for a long time, but as our awareness of the problematic nature of animals in captivity increased over the years we had become more and more reluctant to visit zoos. However, we had heard that Australia Zoo were a leading force in conservation in Queensland, and were certainly impressed by the information on sustainability and animal welfare that we found on their website. So, needless to say, we were pretty conflicted. Ultimately we decided that this would be a learning experience: we visited Australia Zoo optimistic about their ethos, and excited to see if it would live up to our expectations.


What were our first impressions of Australia Zoo?

I'll admit, we were pretty hyped when we arrived at Australia Zoo - we caught the complementary shuttle from the train station to the Zoo, and the driver was a lovely, upbeat guy. It was a little annoying that the last shuttle of the day left almost two hours before the zoo's closing time - meaning that we would have to rush our visit a little more than we intended - but the convenience of the shuttle outweighed our frustration here. When we arrived at the zoo, after a short wait at the ticket gates, we were welcomed into the sprawling park, which - despite being busy - had a really spacious feel to it. And wherever we looked, there was a smiling face of at least one Irwin (or the famous 'CRIKEY!' catchphrase) in our eyeline!


We were impressed by the quality of the boards around the entrance (and continuing around the park) about sustainability, animal welfare, and climate change. Even standing in the queue, you can learn about some of the important conservation work that Australia Zoo are leading and partaking in, which sets the tone for a strong focus on this throughout the zoo. Some of the important positive impacts of zoos, to us, is education - increasing peoples' awareness of the plight of animals and the planet - and the development and maintenance of endangered species. It was clear, from the beginning, that Australia Zoo took both of these things seriously.


What impressed us about Steve Irwin's zoo?

The first animal that we came across was the Komodo Dragon. This was pretty special for us because the Komodo is one of Mike's favourite animals - he has even been to Komodo Island to see them in their natural habitat. But this wasn't the only reason that we were pleased to see them: I was impressed, right away, by the enclosure that the Komodo lived in. I have experience working with reptiles from when I was younger (though nothing as big as the Komodo Dragon, I might add!) and couldn't believe how happy and healthy this Komodo looked. The enclosure was really big - they had so much space to roam around in. Though one of the hides had a window, allowing visitors to the zoo to see them while they were resting, there were additional hides that allowed the reptiles to get away from the public eye.


This set the tone for the rest of our visit: many times Mike and I actually commented on how impressive the enclosures were. All of the animals looked really happy and healthy, definitely a reflection of their living spaces. This was by far the best zoo that we have ever visited when it came to the animals' homes. They were well decorated, themed appropriately to the creatures' natural environments, with rocky hides, trees, and water features aesthetic for visitors' appreciation but also to mimic the lives that these animals would have had in the wild. This brings us onto a second thing that impressed us about Australia Zoo: a majority of the animals here are actually Australian, or from a similar climate at least. One thing that we really dislike in zoos is the way that animals from very different climates can often be found having to acclimatise to unnatural conditions; here this was not the case. As visitors to Australia we could really appreciate this too: Australia has incredible biodiversity and some really beautiful species, so we were very happy to see a lot more of the country's animals, and how the zoo was ensuring the future of these unique creatures.


Finally, Australia Zoo do some really important work in Queensland - and worldwide. Steve Irwin's legacy includes thousands of animal lovers who were first inspired by the enthusiasm and love that this man showed to all creatures; it's wonderful that the Irwins are continuing this important work in Steve's family name. With its global partners, Australia Zoo contribute to causes that try to save animals from extinction and make the world a better place. But more locally, Australia Zoo runs a 24/7 Wildlife Hotline, using their expertise to help wild animals in Queensland on a daily basis too. The dedication and resources required to run a service like this really impressed me, and shine a pretty favourable light on Australia Zoo.


What were we not so keen on?

All this being said, there were a few things that we didn't find so fantastic about Australia Zoo. Firstly, the animal experiences. Though I appreciate that the extra money that Australia Zoo make on tickets for these experiences go towards their conservation efforts. And I understand that sometimes, these experience change people's outlook on animals, contributing to a better future. But many studies have suggested restricting these activities: particularly koala handling, which has been shown to have a negative impact on the animals and thus has been banned by all parts of Australia apart from Queensland.


Being completely honest with you, when I first headed to Australia I had really hoped to hold a koala. This was something that had been a dream of mine since I was a child, and it was only when I was about to book an experience that I thought to look into the ethics of this practice. And it's not good news: koalas can become pretty stressed out when handled by humans, particularly ones with whom they are unfamiliar. These wild animals really shouldn't be used as a photo prop, becoming understandably distressed when overworked in this way. Now, if you are going to interact with a koala while you're in Queensland, I would say that Australia Zoo may be one of the better places to do so. They are heavily supervised by staff that they know, and the time that people are allowed to spend with the koalas is limited for the animals' welfare. When the koalas' interaction time is up, they are placed back on their branches and a sort of 'do not disturb' sign is mounted on the tree to show the public that the koalas were requiring some rest time. So while this was much better than it could have been, I am still uncomfortable with the fact that this practice - that has been banned across the rest of Australia - is still prevalent here.

Similarly, when we visited the kangaroo enclosure, we were a little uncomfortable about the way that some of the visitors were allowed to approach the kangaroos. While there were clearly marked rest areas where the public were not allowed to roam, these were only split off by a thin, low fence and were pretty small and full of 'roos. Saying this though, the kangaroo area as a whole was huge, with so much space for the animals to hop around, so there was no overcrowding. There were also staff watching on the interactions between kangaroos and visitors to ensure their mutual safety; though I knelt on the ground and allowed the kangaroos to come to me if they felt like saying hello, other visitors were following the creatures around the paddock. I was a little concerned that some of the 'roos might be feeling a little harassed, but the keepers - and the kangaroos themselves - didn't show any particular concern.


Finally, the shows. We went to only one of the shows that Australia Zoo offer, and had some mixed feelings about what we saw there. It was clear that the numerous keepers in the show were very well bonded with the animals, and cared deeply for them. They were very knowledgeable about the species and worked hard to engage and educate the audience about their welfare and conservation. Much of the pre-show media was about our mutual responsibilities as stewards of this planet, encouraging recycling and consideration of the ethics of our activities and purchases. However, I am not so comfortable with animals being used for entertainment, and - though the time that the animals spent in front of an audience was minimal, the audiences are huge and these are certainly not natural conditions. Some people may be a little uncomfortable, too, with the carcasses used for feeding the crocs toward the end of the show - one of the keepers had a little banter about a white ibis (bin chicken) that was getting a little too close to the crocs. I am pleased to say it did not get eaten, but I was afraid for it, to say the least. I was really impressed by the staff running the show though: at one point, a man behind us was having a medical emergency; we caught the eye of one of the presenters and it was clear that he was already aware. Soon enough, medical staff were on the scene and helping the gentleman out. The level of professionalism and awareness of these keepers, when it came to the animals and the audience, has stuck with me ever since.


What were our lasting impressions of the zoo? Would we go back?

Like any zoo, there are pros and cons to visiting Australia Zoo. However, it was definitely the best zoo that we have visited on many counts. We would definitely visit again, and are comfortable that the money that we spent here was going to be put to responsible use. Though we weren't entirely happy with the animal encounters and the performance element, they were definitely handled in the best way that we have ever seen. If you're not going to do away with them completely, then this is probably the best that it can be. And the animals all appear to be healthy and happy: their homes are very well suited to each individual species, and there is a clear commitment to replicating the animals' natural environments as closely as possible. We were pretty impressed with Australia Zoo, the work that the owners and keepers put into not only the welfare and happiness of the animals in their care, and those in the wild in Queensland and across the world. We may not love zoos, but Australia Zoo comes as close to comfortable for us as we have experienced so far.


Have you been to Australia Zoo? Do you think it is an ethical place to visit? Let us know what you think in the comments below.


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