Johannesburg Zoo, then and now

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Copy of ST Joburg Zoo 273 INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS People look at the elephant in its new cage at Joburg Zoo when it celebrated its 110 birthday. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng

Johannesburg - When Johannesburg Zoo was started, if you wanted to visit but had no money, you could make a different sort of donation. The zoo would accept your pet as payment.

Visitors were encouraged to donate pets by zoo management, as staff could feed them to the carnivores. “People would bring in their cats and dogs. Getting food for them (the animals) at that time was a struggle,” said tour guide Nkateko Khangala.

The zoo turned 110 years old on Sunday. It came about when law firm Hermann Eckstein donated 81 hectares of land to the people of Joburg for recreational use, 54ha of which is now the zoo.

The original zoo had only had 10 animals, a fraction of the present 1 968 occupants.

The first animal enclosure was a small cave which measured less than 10m in diameter.

Khangala said they kept as many as three large cats in there at a time. It’s now disused, and larger, open-air enclosures have given the zoo animals a lot more space.

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In bygone years the zoo also took a different view on how close people should get to the animals. They offered rides on various animals, including the elephants. This was very popular until 1964, when a boisterous elephant ran off with a load of children on its back. The zoo then decided the rides were no longer safe.

The zoo does not bury its animals when they die but cremates them in a large incinerator. However, if they have to dispose of a very large animal, such as an elephant, they need to cut it into pieces before being able to fit it in the incinerator.

The oldest creature there is a 49-year-old black spider monkey that staff call Wrinkle. But the male silver back gorilla is the prima donna of the zoo. In his natural environment he would be the dominant male in a troop.

“With that there comes a certain level of respect,” said Letta Madlala, general manager for marketing and communications for the zoo.

Human visitors often don’t understand this and will do things the gorilla views as insulting, such as staring it straight in the eyes.

The gorilla has a favourite pastime – watching television. Not just any channel – he enjoys the cartoons most.

Wang, the lone polar bear who lost his mate earlier this year, is now the only one in Africa. But when Wang, who is now 30 years old, dies they will not replace him as they have never had any success breeding polar bears in our warm climate.

This fits into the changing function of zoos. They are no longer there just for keeping animals for people to look at and enjoy, but also involve breeding programmes and drives to save endangered species.

Last year, the zoo released honey badgers into the wild in the North West as part of a breeding programme.

As part of its new attractions, the zoo will open an exhibit called “The Temple of the Ancient” next month, which will feature 76 species of freshwater animals from the Amazon.

Next month, the zoo will also finally be able to show off all the big five – once its new African leopard is out of quarantine. - The Star

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