Wendy Attenborough, Executive Director of Perth Zoo, was appointed to lead its daily operations in May 2018. She came to the zoo after over a decade as an executive in the Western Australia Public Service, having worked on a range of significant policy issues in the Department of Premier and Cabinet, and represented the State Government in a range of cross-jurisdictional negotiations.
Previously, Attenborough worked for a non-government organisation for almost ten years, working with Aboriginal people on land-related issues. She started her professional life as a journalist and producer with ABC Radio, working in WA, Victoria and the NT.
She talks to blooloop about her background, the zoo, and the finalised 20-year masterplan that has been released, revealing plans which include a new orangutan enclosure, expanded animal habitats, an improved visitor experience, a new conservation centre, and a treehouse and play area.
Attenborough’s career started a long way from the zoo sector:
“I started as a journalist, not long after finishing university,” she says. “One of my first jobs was with a trade union. After that I worked for ABC radio, in various parts of Australia, doing that work in some extraordinary places. “
“I worked in the Northern Territory, where I got to see some beautiful landscape and spend time in some amazing places, and in Western Victoria, in a small rural community very close to some wilderness areas, both desert – no one realises there are deserts in Southeast Victoria, but there are, so you spend time hiking there on the weekends – and also the Grampian Mountains, which are extraordinary.”
Working with communities and the natural world
When she left the ABC, she began working with an Aboriginal organisation in the Kimberley region in the north of Western Australia:
“That was an extraordinary time. It was not long after the Mabo decision was handed down in Australia, acknowledging that Aboriginal people had native title rights to land and waters. This was a significant change that recognised Aboriginal people had indeed been here for a very long time and had rights to assert.
“I worked with an organisation called the Kimberley Land Council which was working with groups of traditional owners in the Kimberley to have their native title rights recognised. It was terrific.
“While I was in the Kimberley, both of my children were born in that area. Having two young children in an extraordinary landscape, as well as my own experiences as a child in remote parts of Australia, really shaped the way that I see the natural world and the importance of the natural world to our own wellbeing, and, particularly, the impact that interaction with the natural world has on developing minds and on young people.”
Around 19 years ago, she then came to Perth, to work for the West Australian state government:
“I really hadn’t spent much time living in cities. I had a brief stint when I was at university in a city, and then in Melbourne, which is a big international city. Coming to Perth was quite a shift for me.”
Commenting on the theme that ran through her public service life over those years, she says:
“The significant thread, I suppose, is about early childhood policy development and education policy.”
Her next move was into the Workers’ Compensation part of government:
“It might seem like an odd leap, given everything that came before. But that was, again, about innovation for me. I worked on developing a new conciliation system to bring disputing parties together in a constructive way, and in doing so developing my skills as a public servant and a public sector administrator.”
Coming to Perth Zoo
Attenborough was, she feels, very lucky when the position at Perth Zoo became available just over three years ago.
“It really brought together so many of the strands in my professional life,” she says. “We’re owned by the government. So, certainly understanding how to be an effective government officer and public servant were important factors.”
“But equally, and perhaps more importantly for me, there is that connection between people, particularly young people, and the natural world, and our capacity to effect a real change in their lives, in an urban environment where it’s increasingly difficult to do that.
“Something I love about coming to work every day is that that I hear cheerful children not only having a fantastic time but also genuinely engaged with what a good zoo can offer them.”
A conservation mission
Perth Zoo’s current mission has been in place for the last decade.
“It reflects the shifts that most of the good modern zoos have taken around the world,” she says. “Which is to say that we are, first and foremost, a conservation institution. Our mission is to make sure that the world is a better place, that habitats are more secure, and that animal species can survive.”
We are, first and foremost, a conservation institution. Our mission is to make sure that the world is a better place, that habitats are more secure, and that animal species can survive
“At the heart of our zoo is that work, the conservation or preservation of both the exotic species, and certainly we’re engaged in several programmes in relation to that, but also our Australian native species. We breed on-site several critically endangered Western Australian species for release back to the wild. That’s an important part of who we are.”
Education is key
Perth Zoo is the biggest non-school provider of education in Western Australia.
“We see a lot of children,” she says:
“What a fantastic opportunity that is, if a fraction of those then grow up to be conservationists, taking action for the world, when our mission is complete; it’s a tremendous outcome.”
“From the feedback that we get from teachers and, particularly, young people themselves, I can see the impact that we have.
“That is absolutely an important part of who we are.”
The history of Perth Zoo
Perth Zoo first opened in 1898.
“Most good zoos have a common story, and that is that they started as a place of recreation and as a place for people to perambulate. Our zoo is old. We have been in existence now for 123 years. In the scheme of zoos, I think even globally that’s not a young zoo.
“We were started by a group of colonists who wanted to bring species to Western Australia that would help the settlers here feel better about being here., and to send local species home.”
‘Acclimatisation societies’, the original missions from which zoos evolved, were colonial enterprises throughout the British Empire in the 19th century. These set out to ensure early colonists felt at home, and to introduce animals they felt would in some way be an asset.
“That name tells you all that needs to be known about the genesis of the zoo. It was a really important part of the city’s social life,” Attenborough says.
“We had tennis courts here. We were, from the very beginning, an absolutely beautiful botanic estate. There was an emphasis growing on creating a wonderful botanic garden here; we were Perth’s first botanic garden. We all get to enjoy that particular legacy, which is that we have this extraordinarily mature, exotic tree collection, which creates a green and lush environment.”
An inner-city jungle
There are trees at Perth Zoo that don’t appear anywhere else in Western Australia:
“We feel that s an equally important part of our custodianship. One of the reasons that people love to come to our zoo is because of our gardens. We do look quite different from many zoos as a consequence because we have these extraordinarily beautiful green avenues and open green spaces.
“You can get lost in a little jungle. It’s a really special environment for an inner-city zoo. We’re right on the doorstep of the CBD, and yet able to take our visitors to another world entirely.”
It’s a really special environment for an inner-city zoo. We’re right on the doorstep of the CBD, and yet able to take our visitors to another world entirely
The zoo has been through up and down periods throughout its history:
“The Great Depression in the first half of the 20th century was a particularly challenging time. It was around that time that the zoo was taken on by the government. Since that time, it’s been operated pretty much as a statutory authority. We’re owned by the government for the benefit of the people of our state, and we’re governed by a piece of legislation that specifically empowers us to work in relation to research and breeding for conservation purposes. It’s quite a powerful statutory mandate.”
Research at Perth Zoo
Outlining some of that research, Attenborough says:
“There are several different programmes. Many of these are connected to the natural world, or to the endangered species that we have. So, there are programmes associated with how well animals do once they’re bred in the zoo and then released back to the wild, and what happens to them.
“There is also research in terms of ensuring that we are improving the welfare of the animals that spend their lives here and making sure that we can give them the best possible life. That includes looking at what forms of enrichment are most appropriate for particular species and the effect of various forms of enrichment.”
“There are also programmes to assess indicators of behaviour from animals and to make sure that their wellbeing is secure.
“We have about 300 volunteers. Some of them generously donate their time to take very careful recordings every single day of animal behaviour, so we’ve got a significant database around which we can carry out the work to ensure that we’re providing the best possible life.”
Understanding animal behaviour
“We had two new lions, sisters, come to us a few years ago. As part of their settling in phase, we spent the next year doing very careful observations about how they interacted in a visual sense with another lion that we had.
“While they were physically separated, they could see one another, and we wanted to understand what that relationship was like. There has been a great deal of work done out of the data that was collected during that time.”
Overall, the research is done for the broader conservation purpose:
“It is work that’s predominantly carried out with the species that are bred for release to the wild, and the work that’s done internally to the zoo to make sure that the animals that live here have led the best possible life.”
Perth Zoo and COVID-19
Concerning the pandemic, Perth Zoo has been relatively fortunate:
“I was just speaking with some colleagues in the states on the east coast of Australia, and Perth’s is currently the only metropolitan zoo in Australia that’s open,” she says:
“I feel we’re experiencing a bit of survivor’s guilt here in Perth. We have had a fortunate run when compared with many of our colleagues both across Australia and internationally. While the pandemic has affected every single one of us, the effect on us has been so small compared with the experiences that others are having right now.”
“We have experienced this extraordinary outpouring of support from our community. They have recognized the value in having these wonderful outdoor spaces that enable people to connect with the world without having to go far from their homes.
“At the end of our last financial year, which finished at the end of June here in Australia, visitor numbers were the highest they have ever been. We had record visitation, notwithstanding that we were had two closures during that financial year. They weren’t lengthy closures, but nonetheless, it was an extraordinary outcome.”
Keeping the community engaged
It didn’t happen for no reason, however:
“It happened because we took a very careful stock last year when we were closed for three months, of what we needed to do to remain in touch with our community, and to, in a sense, demonstrate our worth to them. We were there for the community when they needed us. We put a lot of time and energy and funds into moving activities online. And into providing support for people that were at home.
“We conducted virtual lessons for teachers who weren’t able to come to the zoo, but still had classes. We generated lively local, national, and international following in our live feeds from animal enclosures here at the zoo.”
“Every staff member really embraced the opportunity. You know, we all say that innovation is driven by adversity, and indeed, I think that’s what we’ve seen here.
“We have ensured that our work continues, certainly in a practical sense. We’ve developed new ways to connect with people and to share our mission and story, enabling our education and our conservation mission and our capacity to help shape other people’s lives to continue.
“I feel that the effort we put in during our closure to do that was repaid by our community when they either remembered we’re here or decided to come more than once. I feel very fortunate and gratified that our community has shown that level of faith and commitment to us.”
Animal management challenges
However, she continues:
“For many colleagues, the story is far less rosy. I really feel for those who have had a tough time. We have had government support both from the state and the federal government, both of whom have made funding available. From a financial perspective, we’ve been relatively cushioned, and assisted to manage the revenue shortfalls that we had last year.”
Where there has been a direct impact is in the zoo’s capacity to participate in the regional animal management programme.
“Zoos operate as part of a regional and global management effort, particularly around those endangered exotic species. The capacity to move animals between zoos to preserve genetics and to ensure the longevity of those species, even if it means for some of them a zoo life, has been really constrained by COVID.
“There have been times when it has been very challenging for us to either bring animals into the zoo or out of the zoo. Even within Australia. To get a giraffe from Perth to the other side of Australia is at least a 48-hour journey. It’s a long way. And, obviously, with those larger species, you can’t just pop them on a plane in a pet pack.
“That has had a significant impact, but I’m sure we’re not alone in that impact.”
Optimism for the future
Despite the formidable challenges facing the natural world, Attenborough remains optimistic. She comments:
“I think you have to believe in our capacity to effect change, and in the capacity of the people that come through our door every day to make a connection with wildlife and the natural world that will, in some way, affect their own behaviours.
I do believe that we can ensure that the future is secure. But it doesn’t mean that there aren’t some really tough things happening
“Children are very powerful. We should not underestimate the capacity of children to change what happens in the home. I do believe that we can ensure that the future is secure. But it doesn’t mean that there aren’t some really tough things happening.”
Perth Zoo & orangutan conservation
She gives an example:
“We have a fabulous programme here at Perth Zoo to look after Sumatran orangutans, a critically endangered species.
“They are down to their thousands in the wild, concerning the number of the particular subspecies that we look after here. And their habitat is extraordinarily precarious. In terms of the longevity of a species, zoos become an important part of that story, to ensure that species survives.”
“They also enable us to explain that story to visitors. Here we sit in Perth, and the largest population of orangutans in the wild is not that far from us. It’s up there in Indonesia, our closest neighbour. Clearly, it rests with all of us to try and make a change to what’s happening in their habitat. Meanwhile, we can ensure that as a species they survive at least in captivity.”
Breeding programmes at Perth Zoo
In terms of optimism, she adds:
“We breed several species here at Perth Zoo and then release them to the wild. A couple of those species were thought to be extinct. Then, miraculously, an animal turned up, was identified, and a breeding program was initiated. In some of those examples, their status on the vulnerability scale has been affected positively.
“The western swamp tortoise, for instance, has gone from being Australia’s most critically endangered reptile to one of Australia’s most critically endangered reptiles. That doesn’t sound much, but it makes a difference. We have bred over 800 western swamp tortoises here that have been then released back to the wild.”
“We collect the eggs of two species of frogs from the wild, where they are predated, to give them the best possible chance. The eggs are brought into the zoo. When the little tadpoles get big enough to withstand some of those early predatory activities, they’re released back into the river system that they come from. They only come from one little river system in South Australia. It’s a very specific habitat.
“Then there is the story of the chuditch [Western Australia’s largest carnivorous marsupial] that we bred here. This is an animal that is now thriving out in the wild and doing very well. In fact, we no longer breed them for release. Because they’re back living a happy life and doing what they need to do.
“Again, it’s those moments and those activities that should give us all optimism.”
Working in the wild
The connection that good zoos have between the work that they do in the zoo and the work they do in the wild, is key, Attenborough says:
“To go back to the orangutan story, it is an important one. We are doing all we can to make sure that that they’re preserved as a species. But meanwhile, we’re also supporting activities in Sumatra to help the community to preserve that habitat. And to ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, there is habitat there for them.”
“Perth Zoo works with the Frankfurt Zoological Society in Sumatra in the Bukit Tigapuluh sanctuary area, the ecosystem there. We work with the local community on habitat protection, both for the elephants and Sumatran orangutans. Those connections between the ex-situ and the in-situ work are really important.
“It is a way of making tangible for zoo visitors something that can seem a really long way away. At our orangutan habitat here at the zoo, we’ve got some great interactive material. Kids can understand the sort of activities that the orangutan has to do to survive in the wild and the work that we’re doing to help that happen.
“It speaks, I think, to the power of a good zoo to connect with people in that way.”
Perth Zoo’s new 20-year plan
Perth Zoo revealed its new 20-year master plan in May 2021. Features include a conservation centre that will allow the public to see procedures underway in the veterinary hospital and provide opportunities for the community to learn more about animal breeding initiatives that help combat species extinction.
The zoo will create a new orangutan jungle to support its world-leading orangutan programme. This will enable the public to learn more about the amazing creatures. There will also be a new plaza-style zoo entrance, a café, a treehouse and a nature play area.
“It’s very exciting,” says Attenborough. “All of the things I have spoken about in terms of our role to provide connections between our community and the wild are achieved by providing the best possible day out for our visitors, and the best possible lives for our animals. It is at the point at which those two objectives intersect that we know we’re doing a great job.
“The master plan really provides the opportunity to examine how we provide a wonderful life for the animals that live here at Perth Zoo, and how we can draw our visitors into an understanding of the animal world while making sure that we are providing every agency and choice for those animals, and achieving the best possible welfare outcome.”
Clearly, these things change over time:
“Expectations in 1898, when the zoo started here in Perth, and expectations today are immeasurably different. Similarly, they will continue to change. The public’s expectations of us as a zoo and our own expectations of ourselves will change.”
The things that matter to us most are ensuring the best life possible and the best standards of welfare possible for the animals that live here, and making sure that we can draw people into the natural world as much as possible
“Over the life of that 20-year master plan, the way that we deliver some of the plans might differ in 20 years from the plan that we’ve written today.
“But it gives us a journey to follow, and it demonstrates to our community that the things that matter to us most are ensuring the best life possible and the best standards of welfare possible for the animals that live here, and making sure that we can draw people into the natural world as much as possible.
“For many people in cities, zoos are the only places where they have some interaction with the natural world.”
Taking visitors on a journey
Perth is surrounded by Australian nature, with the Indian Ocean on one side and the Australian outback on the other. It is known as the most isolated city in the world:
“The capacity to get out and see places is limited, for people that live here. Not only during a pandemic but also by the cost of an airfare, for many people. So, we have a responsibility to help people understand the world and to take people on a journey.”
The master plan, she explains, seeks to deliver those objectives:
“We’ve identified some early projects. We’ve divided the plan very clearly into two separate decades. And our focus is on the planning of the first decade right now.”
New facilities for Perth Zoo
One of the first projects focuses on state-of-the-art facilities to ensure the provision of a wildlife health surveillance function:
“We have a role in the state more generally to assist in animal health and animal health surveillance in wildlife.
“Over the next 18 months or so we’re also building new visitor facilities; a new cafe, a new function centre. This will enable us to build our commercial capabilities and provide good contemporary visitor amenities.”
“Our existing cafe building has been here for 70 years. So we know that whatever we’re about to build has probably got to stand that test of time.
“We’re also busy planning a new conservation precinct. This will enable us to share what happens in the conservation breeding work and veterinary hospital spaces a whole lot better with our visitors. At the moment, both our veterinary hospital and all of that breeding work happens behind the scenes.”
Celebrating conservation programmes
“The breeding work is very sensitive. We can’t have 750,000 visitors tromping through there. We can, however, tell the story, and we can, through excellent design, give glimpses into some of that work that protects its sensitivity and the welfare of the animals that we’re breeding, but that draws our visitors in and connects them with that terribly important story about what’s happening right on our Western Australian doorstep, with our own critically endangered species.”
This is an early priority to deliver.
“I think it will be a significant step-change for the zoo to celebrate and showcase that work we do for our own species here in WA, and to provide a window to what is happening in the state as a whole,” she says. “I’m very excited about that. We’re moving into the planning stages.”
A significant new orangutan habitat for Perth Zoo is also in the planning stages:
“This is about giving these amazing, highly intelligent, strong, capable creatures the best possible life we can.
“We give them an excellent life now, of course. The care that we give them here is extraordinary. But we want to future proof that. We want to make sure that that we continue to meet our own expectations of what a good life looks like, as well as helping shape the community’s expectations about what a good life should be for current animals.
“That’s very exciting as well. But it doesn’t come cheap.”
The zoo has received initial state government funding support of $43.5 AUD for early initiatives:
“This will deliver us the new cafe and function centre. And it will assist us to really develop the planning on those other big projects,” she says, adding, in conclusion:
“I have really learnt an enormous amount about the zoo industry. I don’t come from a zoo background. And I am just in awe of the passion and commitment of people that have made their professional lives in the zoo world, and the difference they make. I’m so delighted to be able to be part of that, and to help facilitate the staff that work here to do absolutely extraordinary things.”
All images kind courtesy Perth Zoo. Header image credit Alex Cearns