Walk on the Wildside: Mulligan’s Flat and The National Zoo and Aquarium

“A cheetah just licked my arm.”

As excellent as many wildlife documentaries are, there’s nothing quite the same as experiencing wildlife in person. Over the local Human Brochure weekend, we experienced two very different ways that Canberra organisations are combining a conservation philosophy with public engagement: Mulligan’s Flat Woodland Sanctuary, and the National Zoo and Aquarium.

The earliest known menagerie was in Ancient Egypt around 3500 B.C., so it’s fair to say that humans have wanted to experience wildlife in a controlled (safe!) setting for a very long time. Thankfully, animal ethics have also come a long way in that time, and modern Western zoological gardens are now as much focused on conservation, research and education as they are on public entertainment (but more on this later). The National Zoo and Aquarium’s own motto is “To inspire and assist in the conservation of the natural world through innovative and exciting educational experiences.”

Giraffe Tongue

Much more recently, and coming straight out of the conservation movement (rather than adapting to it), are wildlife sanctuaries. These take a holistic approach to conservation, by protecting an entire ecosystem and thus the complex relationships between species within them. Mulligan’s Flat is one of more than 30 reserves within suburban Australian Capital Territory that have been set aside for preservation. Even more exciting is that the Mulligans Flat-Goorooyarroo Woodland Experiment is a long-term research project concerned with reintroducing native wildlife to this rare Box Gum Grassy Woodland: such as the super cute little bettong!

Our Twilight Tour of Mulligan’s began on the sunset of Halloween, when our guide and ecologist Kate took us away from the impressive annual display put on by the local homo sapiens and their offspring. We first passed the impressive predator-proof fence, and then paused in the repurposed Woolshed for the dark to take hold. Then, torches in hand, we set out into the night.

Kate proved a knowledgeable and amicable guide, laughing about the evolutionary stickiness of the native mistletoe seeds, which force the mistletoe bird (Dicaeum) to wipe their backsides on a branch to dislodge their droppings! Soon enough we quieted down, as we paused to spot tiny frogs in the grasses, and listen to their calls.

And then we were given a real treat. The bettong, extinct from mainland Australia for over a century before being recently reintroduced to this reserve from Tasmania, was before us. It was thrill enough to see the aptly-named rat-kangaroo back in its habitat, and even better that our encounter was with a confident example of the species! The shy marsupial is apparently usually only seen in brief glimpses as it disappears into the understory, but our little fella spent a good few minutes hopping around only 50 metres from us. (Which felt very close in person, and very far away on a very dark night for my poor camera.)

Even the ordinarily common brushtail possum seemed to take on a special magic in the dark sanctuary, and we congratulated ourselves on coming across a mother and her post-pouch young. Finally, it was time to part way with Kate, but not before another encounter with a gaggle of children, and an introduction to the exceptional local playground.

The next morning we were off to the National Zoo and Aquarium for our Walk on the Wildside Tour. Here we were greeted by our grinning guide Brendan. Like Kate, he’s an expert in native wildlife, though our first stop on our tour was the Southeastern Asian Red Panda. “Adorable” does not do these animals justice. They were perfectly at home climbing across our laps and shoulders as we fed them fresh fruit, and it was with half-broken hearts that we parted ways.

These hearts were mended in part by the lovely Humbekhali, affectionately known as Hummer, whom we had to feed from a stepladder. Brendan assured us that giraffe saliva is considered good luck, and Hummer made absolutely certain that none of us would walk away without a good dose of it in slobber form.

Brendan really came into his element with the dingos, who loved him as much as any domestic dog. They were pretty content with us too, with Jumbany rolling over for a tummy rub, her eyes closed in pleasure. We then wandered past the penguins (who are apparently very famous, having been the inspiration for Linux’s logo, Tux the Penguin!) to the Barking Owls. Brendan was also pretty enthused about these native birds, and two of the bird-mad Taswegians in my group agreed with him.

Then onto the big cats. Seeing these powerful animals close up certainly made me appreciate their size (and the intimidation of those without a protective barrier between them and those canines). We fed Berani the Sumatran Tiger through a cage and Mishka the white lioness through a glass screen, and watched the two Sumatran tigers and the four white male lions (known appropriately as the Brat Pack) devour the part carcasses set out for them. There’s something different about seeing a tiger behind bars from a red panda on your shoulder, and I queried Brendan about the zoo and the moral conundrum of animals in cages. To his credit and the zoo’s, Brendan answered well, saying that territory size was largely determined by food availability (not an issue for any of the animals in the zoo), and that the animals were also watched for behavioural signs of stress. While I still felt morally conflicted about the whole thing (particularly for the big cats and the monkeys – less so for the tree kangaroos and pandas, who genuinely seemed perfectly content), I also accepted the zoo’s role in breeding programs (which the National Zoo and Aquarium does a very fine job at).

Still, it was a nice change to see cats out from behind the bars, and we not only patted the cheetah pair, but got a good raspy lick from them too. (Like, a really good, really raspy lick, that I’m quite convinced not only exfoliated my forearm, but was part of the process of removing all of its flesh from the bone, one lick at a time.) I was further reassured that at least some good work was done by the Zoo when we met the Sun Bears. Otay had been rescued by the Free the Bears organisation from a cage in a restaurant, where she was fated to have her paws eaten. She still sways from side to side, a symptom from her days in a cage, but at least now she lives in a larger enclosure, with the company of another Sun Bear, Arataki.

Cotton-Top Tamarins on our shoulders (Brendan assuring me that the monkeys are given food in difficult containers and their enclosures are constantly changed to keep their minds busy), a Burmese Python around our necks, a sleepy Tree Kangaroo smiling as he ate avocado from our fingers, and then off to lunch with Hummer. Champagne, sushi and cheese platters are pretty decent student fare by anyone’s reckoning, but eating it at the same height as a giraffe’s head is really something else! Finally, we fed the sharks, and patted a very friendly Nurse Shark, and then our Walk on the Wildside had come to an end.

I hadn’t known what to expect as one of the 101 Local Humans, but I certainly learned a lot. In less than 24 hours, I’d spotted an extinct mainland marsupial reintroduced in its native habitat, learned about sticky poo, been on the verge of stealing a red panda, and had lunch with a giraffe. There are different ways to approach wildlife conservation, yet in Canberra at least, two very different organisations are both doing their best to not only preserve threatened species, but to help people experience them.

Tree kangaroo

Sarah and giraffe

My photos of Mulligan’s Flat on Flickr.

My photos from the National Zoo and Aquarium on Flickr.

A thought-provoking article on the zoo-direction in which predator-proof fences are perhaps heading.

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6 thoughts on “Walk on the Wildside: Mulligan’s Flat and The National Zoo and Aquarium

  1. I really don’t know how I feel about zoos – especially private zoos, which is what the National Zoo and Aquarium is. A decade ago I did one of my Museum Studies internships with Taronga Zoo, looking at the Zoomobile program and the (then new) Backyard-to-Bush display. Research I did at the time seemed to indicate that one-off immersive encounters with wildlife were not what created eco-conscious individuals; rather, it was spending time as a child with a trusted adult figure in ‘wild’ spaces that seemed to foster the nature-lovers of the future.

    Since exploring animal studies scholarship I have come across the ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ school of thought, who argue that the more access we have to ‘exotic’ creatures the more dismissive we then become of them (eg the brushtail possum!).

    But on the other hand, the sun bear rescue program is clearly doing good work, and the positive implications of research programs should also not be overlooked. Perhaps there will always be certain breeds or species of animals who can be happy in captive environments. I just… I really don’t know. I am genuinely conflicted on this issue. I definitely think it’s important that people be asked to consider the complexity of the issue, whatever side of the fence (bars?) they end up in.

    Have you seen the movie ‘Blackfish’?

    • I’ve not yet seen Blackfish, although I have heard about it. Intelligent animals (such a problematic term!) like orcas or monkeys do seem to have a much worse time in zoos, and I feel that since visitors get no more out of them than than do from Red Pandas (which is already taking an anthropocentric tact that’s not great in itself) we really need to consider such animals in captivity per se. I’m sure that you gathered this from the article, but I’m much more a fan of the preservation and conservation of ecosystems than I am of individual species anyway, and I too wonder how much ‘conservation’ people take away from zoos.

      It’s much like the domestic dog issue though: while puppy farms are abhorrent in most people’s minds, people are willing to look past the issue in order to get an 8-week-old puppy, rather than a year old dog from the RSPCA (itself often there because someone wanted an 8-week-old puppy for only a few weeks). So while people would tend to agree that a zoo composed of entirely rescued animals would be great, they want to see the big African animals that are bred in captivity, because they’re the best to look at for five minutes.

      • Hmmm. I wonder if the same solution to puppy farming (ie ban all pet shops from selling puppies [and kittens…and whatever else is super-cute as a baby animal!]) might also apply as a ‘solution’ to the problematic nature of zoos ie shut them all down?

        I say bring back all the nineteenth century taxidermy specimens and dust them off, so people can learn about wildlife the ole’ fashioned way! And have a channel that just rotates through fifty years of David Attenborough documentaries. Ah, what a wonderful world that would be 😉

  2. Pingback: Raising the Winter Sun: Reflections on the Antipodean May Day | words and wilds

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