from Sydney (1970)

Journalist Brian Kennedy wrote about Sydney for an English publisher’s series on world cities, and caught Taronga Zoo at its lowest ebb:

…As a child I remember being enchanted by the bush setting of the zoo with its view of the harbour. Revisiting the zoo as an adult, I was struck by how dingy and old its buildings looked.

Sir Edward Hallstrom explains some of the characteristics of King Kong to a group of visiting Asian journalists at Taronga Zoo, 1959. (Photograph by Kohn Tanner, National Archives of Australia)

Sir Edward Hallstrom explains some of the characteristics of King Kong to a group of visiting Asian journalists at Taronga Zoo, 1959. (Photograph by John Tanner, National Archives of Australia)

The zoo, like almost everything else in Sydney, has been the subject of controversy. For over a quarter of a century its name was generally associated with its chief benefactor, Sir Edward Hallstrom. Sir Edward, a huge bear of a man who enjoyed posing for press photographers with his favourite gorilla on his shoulders, was chairman of the park trust. He made a good deal of money from manufacturing refrigerators and gave a large amount of it to the zoo – so much, in fact, that he might have been pardoned for feeling that the zoo belonged to him personally. The ‘whose zoo’ controversy reached its peak shortly after Sir Edward’s eightieth birthday. Questioners in the state parliament wondered why such a large zoo did not have the benefit of an architect, a veterinarian or even a zoologist. Sir Edward, they said, was doing all these jobs himself and running the zoo as his private one man band. The government called in that stock figure – an overseas expert. Dr H. Heidiger [sic] of the Zürich Zoo was also critical of the old-fashioned, seedy, run-down look of the zoo. Sir Edward was eighty-three when I telephoned him at his Willoughby factory in 1968 to ask him about the controversy. ‘Just a minute. I’ll get someone to read you the zoo’s guide-book,’ he said. ‘I can’t read it myself because I got kicked by a giraffe a few years ago and I lost the sight of one eye,’ he explained. While someone looked for the guide-book he went on to say that he did not get down to the zoo much any more because both his legs had been injured. ‘But relations between me and the zoo are good,’ he said. His assistant found the guide-book and read out a passage by the zoo’s new director praising Sir Edward’s contributions of animals and money. ‘The men who criticised me didn’t know what they were talking about,’ Sir Edward continued. ‘I didn’t build any buildings; I simply made alterations and renovations to buildings that had been designed by government architects. I did have a veterinarian – one of the best in Sydney. And as for having no zoologist on staff, well, I am a member of the Royal Zoological Society.’ Whatever the rights and wrongs of the controversy, the zoo still has a magnificent setting and the largest collection of Australian animals in the world. A rebuilding programme is under way and, given enough finance from the state government, Taronga Park may regain its position as one of the world’s finest zoos.

–Brian Kennedy, Australian, 1937-