On a stormy day in January 1925, before a crowd of hundreds, a nine-foot-tall polar bear was transferred to a new enclosure at Melbourne Zoo. As lightning flashed and thunder cracked, the bear raised itself to its full height and surveyed the thrilled crowd. Was it safe? A watching keeper assured a spectator that bears cannot leap. Barely had he finished the sentence when the bear leaped. It jumped its moat, scaled the barrier wall and, like a tightrope artist, walked along the top till it reached the now screaming crowd. Zoo workers yelled "Run," parents and children fled, one spectator walked into the bear's enclosure and pulled the steel door shut behind him.
A group of keepers quickly assembled. They threw the bear hunks of horse-meat, whacked at it with crowbars and tried to lasso it, to no avail. The bear went after one man, threw him to the ground and ripped through his scalp. Streaming with blood, the prone man told his mates to shoot the bear. "Shoot quickly." One of the keepers shot at the bear's shoulder from behind, and—improbably—killed it.
I say 'improbably' because in another polar-bear-leaps-into-crowd incident at a 20th century Australian zoo (not the only other time it happened), yet another group of keepers surrounded the escapee with guns, shooting at it over and over. The bullets bounced off the enraged beast, until one man placed the muzzle of his gun right up against the bear's head and pulled the trigger.
An article in The Argus about the 1925 incident concluded that Melbourne was lucky; the most significant consequences were only one casualty and the loss of a bear worth £200. Today, by contrast, the pointless death of a polar bear would cause great sorrow and shame, even more so that the species is endangered, and the Zoo itself would be in significant trouble. But there was a fantastic blamelessness around the event. The design of the enclosure was from the US and Europe, the article explained. Clearly, the walls should be raised. Indeed.
It's tempting to look back and judge the zoos ignorant, and of course they were, but no one born today would have done any better a hundred years ago. Much of what we know about zoo animals feels like truism now—Do not throw coins to the seals, Do not give the orangutans matches, Do not assume polar bears can't jump—but it's been a long process of trial and error. We have learned a lot from our mistakes over the last 100 years.
Among them, the Zoo no longer keeps snakes by the hundreds in a pit or lets the dingoes roam free. It does not display its deceased orangutans in a glass cage, no matter how popular they were. Nor does it take in kangaroos from the public, ex-pets that surprisingly grew big and nasty.
In 2012, the Zoo is undergoing another major evolution, and this time it is leading the world. I spoke to Jenny Grey, current CEO of Melbourne Zoo, for The Monthly. She told me about the changes and introduced me to the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect, an unlovely but charismatic creature that despite its renaissance-meets-special-effects-from-“The Mummy” look, was thankfully only 15-cm-long.