Judy Gibson has been an active member of the Taronga Zoo Friends Association since 1988, a zoo volunteer and guide from 1989 to 2001 and then a staff member, taking over the role of Manager of volunteers in 2005. Armed with a vast knowledge of the zoo, Judy’s stories take us from her earliest childhood memories of visits to Taronga Zoo to behind the scenes with staff, visitors and of course the animals.
Judy Darling, my Uncle Charles Cody, an elephant trainer and supervisor at Taronga was my hero and died rather young after an elephant accidently fell on him. Aunty Muriel and Charlie lived in the Zoo house not far from the zoo… Sadly, Google history has stories of his nephew Dave Cody, who Uncle Charlie trained and I also liked BUT Charlie spoiled us heaps, with elephant rides between his legs on their heads, baby giraffe births, stories of him sucking snake venom from someone, sleeping with sick animals etc. etc. He was one of nine children from Woolloomooloo. I loved him so. My Mum (his sister) loved him more. X Thanks Margaret.
Dave CODY junior was my cousin. My dad Raymond Stanton grew up in Wolloomolo. I’ve just learnt that his mother and aunty had the same first name. The two men were 18months apart in age and looked like.brothers. They both served at New Guinea in WWII. After the war both of them worked at the zoo as elephant keepers. They found the parents very bossy when doing the elephant rides and found it amusing when the elephants were let out to roam down to the scrub behind the zoo together eat it. They were amused by peoples reactions. My older siblings spent alot of time with them at the zoo. Dad left there early 1950’s to become farm manager at Kirkham Stud in Camden, owned by Sir Fredrick Sutton. In fact Stafford Bullen, who dad meet at the zoo, came and picked up the dead livestock for food for big cats From African Lion Safari. History shows that Dave Stayed on at.the zoo for 49yrs, received an OBE and MBE for bringing the elephants out from England for Dubbo zoo. Which he wasn’t too fussed about. Both men had exceptional talent with animals and had more time for them than humans.
I think my earliest memory – I showed you a photo – is, I’m not quite two years old and I do remember going then but we used to go quite regularly, well with our friends on Sunday, a drive or whatever. The only thing my brothers and I could agree on, which had to be the Zoo so the Zoo, used to be a popular one.
So you’d come through the main entrance, that fantastic main entrance and one of the things I’d look out for on the way, which I’m sad that’s no longer in Mosman is one of the buildings, it was one of the corner buildings, it used to have animals heads on it, it was like the Zoo’s entry point. I always knew I was getting close even before you could read the signs and everything at that age, before you read, you were near the Zoo because you were near the little shopping centre that had all the animals on it, so then you’d get to the main entrance and it had all the animals on it and that was pretty exciting.
And then you worked your way back a little bit and see the otters and the koalas and then you’d plunge down the hill to the giraffes, which was a must, you had to see the giraffes because they are so beautiful. And just nearby there were the ‘ horses in jamas’, which were the zebras and a big favourite because I’m a mad keen horse fan. For some reason I was obsessed by the giant ant eaters, I think because they looked so peculiar, so I had to see them, and then it was probably time for lunch or morning tea, of course you’d see everything else in between as well.
And then we’d probably have lunch or something like that, and I think to give my parents a break from sort of rushing from enclosure to enclosure we were usually given the choice of a train ride or a merry-go-round ride and sometimes – but for a long time I was too little – an elephant ride. And being a merry-go-round night my choice was usually the merry-go-round, but I do remember the little train and there was a little painted fluorescent skull in the tunnel and everyone was obliged to scream at that, so I think that was a sort of half-hour break out of rushing from enclosure to enclosure seeing these amazing animals. And I think when I was finally old enough to go on the elephant ride I tried to get a back seat so I could reach down and touch it.
Other things: The poor bear pits used to make me sad, even as a small child, so I’m glad that they went – other favourites….
Oh lions yes, I think one of my earliest sound memories is the sound of the meat slapping down on the cement because it used to be thrown over the top and we used to watch it go down to the lions and rush at it, and that sort of splat noise is a very distinctive sound in my sort of childhood memories.
It wasn’t till sort of later in life when you started taking other people around and visiting other Zoos is what makes Taronga Zoo that incredibly special place is that stunning view and you come round a corner and you’re just simply gobsmacked. It can be wet weather, it can be dry weather, it can be sunny, it can be stormy, it can be all sorts of things, but it’s amazing.
The Le Souefs were actually two brothers, Albert Le Souef was the first director of Taronga and his brother whose first name escapes me, was the director of the Melbourne Zoo, and Albert had been part of what would have been considered the board of the Moore park Zoo, the precursor of Taronga, and they knew that they had run out of space and they needed to move, and it was quite a long period where they were deciding where to move because poor Moore ark suffered from all the sort of biblical plagues and everything else, including the bubonic plague breaking out in Sydney.
They had floods they had fires they had – you name it – the locals in Paddington complained about it being open on a Sunday, they had to destroy part of the animal stock because of the plague, for fear that the plague would spread through Sydney through the animals, and they knew they had to move to build a world-class Zoo, and he’s a very progressive man, both the Le Souef’s- which you can see in the design of Melbourne, which is slightly older than the current Taronga.
But they went on a European study tour, which is what it would be called nowadays – went and visited Zoos all around Europe to see what was the state-of-the-art with Zoos, and the Zoo that they really picked as the example, was Hagenbeck Zoo in Germany, which based its design on terraces and no bars, so hidden ropes and no bars.
But they brought the ideas back from that Zoo because it was the world-class Zoo at that stage, and when they started looking for sites in Sydney, which they did from about 1910 to 1912 they were looking for the potential to have terraces and obviously that point in Ashton Park was perfect for that.
It has its other problems for building being sort of all sandstone and quite hard to build into but it was perfect for the terraces, it had natural terraces, but they looked all over the place. They looked out at Sutherland, they looked out at Parramatta they looked up in the northern beaches all over Sydney to find a site for the Zoo, but the one they finally decided on was the Ashton Park site simply because the ferry already existed and the ferry wharf down at the Point already existed and the tram line ran down there, so that they could get people to this lovely new Zoo because it’s the year of pre-Harbour Bridge, and Taronga opened, oh, 25 years before the Harbour Bridge was built and so people had to get there by water or by tram, or by public transport, so it ended up being a fabulous site.
Dear Sir Edward Hallstrom, he was always an honorary director, it wasn’t a position at that stage, he did so much to keep the Zoo going through the ’30s/40s/50s, he did put his stamp on it and a certain look during that period. And it reflected, I guess, the time and the philosophy about Zoos and the need for hygiene, the need to keep animals scientifically. It did leave us a legacy of cement in cages for a long time but fortunately a lot of those could be modified, or changed around. But he ensured that the Zoo survived over a period where there was a lot of financial difficulties and things like that.
I guess it wasn’t until the ’60s/70s where we started to see a growth of a more progressive and naturalistic Zoo.
The original designs for the Zoo were very naturalistic there was to be no straight lines, there was to be all curving paths and adventure and things like that. It took a little while to get back, to I guess, that philosophy.
Both Strachan and we had an American director by the name of Thropp, and I think both of them and a few directors during that period really did sort of drag us into the later part of the 20th century at that stage.
The elephant ride – it was both a change in philosophy and public opinion but also at that stage the elephants were quite elderly. It takes a lot to train and trust an elephant to do elephant rides and we had one elephant trained who would respond to one keeper, both of whom were getting on a little bit, so I guess it coincided with the change in public feeling and opinion about elephant rides and the ability of the Zoo to provide that service, so it almost meshed in quite nicely to sort of say, ‘oh, look, we’ll stop now because we don’t have an elephant trained’, because a lot of the elephants we started getting after that period were ex circus elephants who had caused difficulties, certainly not an elephant you would train to give rides to kids like they used to, so it wasn’t until we got the new ones a few years back, the very young elephants that you could even contemplate allowing them to meet the public – no bars, no nothing.
Any contact where the public can get close or touch an animal or interact with an animal always rates very highly on the sort of memory charts of people, you know, a visitor, appreciation and things like that. Anywhere where they can touch things, meet things see things happen. I mean, the number of time you’d see baby goats born or sheep and lambs, born down in that friendship farm because you just happened to be there at the right time and kids go, ‘Oh, my god’. It was fantastic.
It can range from celebrities, or Hollywood celebrities or actors and things like that to political figures and all sorts of ones.
I suppose one of my favourite ones was Billy Crystal who is a delightful person, very funny but quite shy, and it took him a little while to warm but he did ask me when he first got out of his car and arrived, and shook my hand, and what not, whether I’d mind if he filmed me in his handy-cam and I said, ‘just warn me about the close-ups’, and after that we got on like a house on fire.
A lot of the diplomatic or political, or we often get military delegations that are organised through the Department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra, as a sort of fill-in for an afternoon or a weekend when they’re in Sydney and things like that so we usually get them for a couple of hours to do some fill-in time and you know, let them take photos of Sydney and get their koala photo or the kangaroo photo and things like that.
But air force 1 came, it was their morning off and things like that, and they were an absolute hoot, they were very, very funny, particularly when they met one of our emus who was in a sort of fairly frisky mood who had been hand-raised and thinks humans are emus or vice versa and he’s actually frightened of other emus, but loves humans, so when it’s mating season he gets very friendly.
One of the interesting groups that came through – two of the interesting groups that came through were the firefighters and the police survivors from September 11 from New York, and it wasn’t long after, it was about a month after, and part of their de-briefing and de-traumatising, was a visit to Australia, and we had them for a morning.
The other group that came out were some of the children from Chernobyl, not long after the Chernobyl disaster, and again – I mean, they didn’t speak much English or whatever, but to watch their faces when they saw a koala and things like that, that was pretty special.
Interestingly, concerts have been there since year 1, since 1916 We used to have a big concert by (indistinct) where the platypus house is now and the Zoo has run concerts virtually through its whole life, they really became big time with the twilight concerts in the sort of later ’80s and what not.
I suppose with the more recent ones it’s at a time when the Zoo itself is closed so the public coming for the concerts sometimes don’t see all that much of the animals. Obviously being nighttime and after hours a lot of the animals – it’s their rest period so they are locked in night houses, or put away or what not. So as a Zoo experience as such, or an animal encounter experience, the concerts perhaps aren’t all that high, but the sounds that people hear, the feeling, the special venue, I think give people a chance to say, ‘oh god I haven’t been to the Zoo for a long time I’ll come back in a few weeks and take the kids’, which is what the Zoo hopes for obviously.
Even when it’s not an official opening time for the Zoo you hear it so often from a visitor, ‘I must come back and see this properly’, so that’s nice.
The Zoo itself is its staff – it is almost a community in itself. You have everything from carpenters to accountants to Zookeepers, to vets to archivists to, you name it, it’s a whole range of skills, and it makes it an interesting place.
Some of the keepers’ stories are extraordinary and some of the dedication that you see from them.
It’s a profession – Zoo keeping, I guess a little bit like nursing, it can take you anywhere in the world because the skills are transferable so they’re lucky in that sense. It’s not a highly paid job and you think – you are amazing people, what you do, and the hours you give and the dedication.
The Zoo, probably before my time, there was a lot of family – you know, dad was a elephant keep so you became an elephant keeper, there’s a lot of family follow up. These days, obviously TAFE runs animal care courses and things like that so they have to come in with basic qualifications. Some small groups of volunteers move across but not many. It is a highly sought after position these days, there are so many people who want to join
I think a lot of people, until they become involved with the Zoo don’t realise the complexity of the place. You know, just the storage of food and preparing food for animals and things like that
One of our biggest expenditure items is fish, so things like seals and a lot of animals eat fish. We have agreements with the fish markets, depending on the seasonal varieties we need, and we need a lot of varieties of food. So many of the animals eat things that people don’t like to think about, like, maggots, and fly pupa (sp) and rats and mice and crickets and cockroaches and things like that. We breed some of those on site. Obviously, it’s not practical for us to establish a chicken farm or things like that to feed our chickens so we do buy those commercially.
So it’s all those behind-the-feed-scene things that the volunteers help to educate the public about.
Well, if you consider that 98% of Australian wildlife is nocturnal there’s a lot of animals living in the Zoo that aren’t part of the collection, like possums, bats – all sorts of things. A lot of the animals, particularly in summertime aren’t necessarily locked in their night house, they have access to it, but they come out and … one of the early stories about the elephants when they arrived was about a month after I arrived. The keepers were a little bit concerned because they came along one morning and the elephants seemed to be terrible lethargic and tired, and we have CCT to monitor their behaviour and what not so we understand what they’re doing and keep an eye on them at night. And so they played back the footage and they had had a pool party most of the night in the moat, and had a wonderful time, and they were just exhausted. They’d just sort of come inside to have a bit of a snooze now.
I mean no one in their right mind would not fail to come in through that main entrance, it’s just beautiful. I know it looks like a demented wedding cake or something like that, but it’s a sign of the times, it has got all those amazing animal heads on it, and the closer you look at it, and all the moldings, there are squirrels and koalas and all sorts of amazing things, so hopefully that will be more picked out when they finish the renovations of that.
It’s also iconic it’s amazing how far you can see that across Sydney, and from the ferry and things like that. The elephant temple that you mentioned, it had elephants living in it for 80 years. Now it has been done up on the outside but we have left the inside as a bit of a museum, and the damage that rubbing and wear, and all sorts of things can do to cement by elephants is amazing, so it’s fascinating to go in there and see what 80 years of elephant occupation has done.
One of the areas that we couldn’t keep, that people have very fond memories of, was the old aquarium, we have kept the façade and incorporated it into the Great Southern Oceans area, but people remember the grottos with the sharks and the funny old things down there.
Unfortunately it was the sort of very early, what we term mock rock, which is cement sprayed over chicken wire and wooden superstructures and what not and it finally became too dangerous to keep both for the keepers, and the animals, and for the general public, and it made way for a great area, but you sometimes think – oh, people ask fondly about it, so that’s why we keep the photos and try to acknowledge the historic precincts in the Zoo with a bit of history nowadays, which is great.
You need to move forward but you also need to acknowledge your past as well.
We’ll never get rid of the floral clock I don’t think, well, I hope not, it’s a favourite meeting place and if you ask anyone, even these days, and it certainly was when I was a kid, ‘if you get lost and can’t find mummy and daddy go to the floral clock and well meet you there’, and you still hear people say that coming through the gate.
The refreshment rooms, I remember them as a very small child. They were very fancy in their heyday in the sort of ’40s, and what not, they served huge meals, and they had their own bakery and a little kitchen and things like that.
They had quite a serious fire, in the 1950s I think. And it was reverted to cafeteria staff, which is what I kind of remember as still being quite good. It had a lot of Sir Edward Hallstrom’s displays in them, everything from a stuffed rhinoceros to birds of paradise and things like that.
I don’t remember much about them, they were demolished in the 1970s to make way for the Taronga centre, and it wasn’t really until probably 10 years ago where real work on a new big cafeteria area started, with lots of little small ones. But feeding the public has always been a bit of a challenge there.
Sandstone, wildlife, views, sounds, the Zoo, the fabulous houses, beautiful gardens, amazing animals, the Harbour, the shops