May 31, 2024

Crafting the green zoo

Much planning and hard work has helped transform Adelaide Zoo into a place of horticultural excellence, where well-placed trees, shrubs, climbers, and groundcovers help blur the lines between exhibit and public space and enhance the enjoyment and wellbeing of animals, zoo staff and visitors.

For more than 140 years, the Adelaide Zoo has given visitors a rare opportunity to view birds, animals, and reptiles from across the globe and just like the Darwinian path its residents have taken, this institution too has evolved.

Set in Botanic Park, Adelaide’s Zoological Gardens opened its Frome Road cast iron gates to great fanfare in 1883. Reminders of that Victorian era are still evident within the grounds – take for example, the impressive Minchin House, the Sir Thomas Elder Rotunda, the Indian temple-inspired Elephant House, the Monkey House (now the Fig Tree Function Centre)  and, of course, those cast-iron gates, which all offer nods to the magnificent architecture of the time.

But much has changed since then: gone are the elephant rides, the big Samorn the last to tow a cart of excited children around the grounds, retired from the role in 1982. Gone, too, are the stark concrete enclosures; these have been modified in keeping with modern zoo practices and Zoos SA has pivoted toward the original “gardens” title to help reshape this zoological landscape.

Jeff Lugg is the general manager of operations at the Adelaide Zoo and he recounts his arrival 35 years ago as a horticultural apprentice.

Adelaide Zoo has changed from its concrete past, to include lush, green exhibits to form welcoming zoological landscapes for both animals and visitors.

“I was one of four staff,” he recalls. “It was a time when we gardeners were looked on more as labourers and clearers and there was not a great deal of emphasis on the relationship between plants, habitat and animals.”

Thankfully that mindset has dramatically shifted.

Within a few years of Jeff commencing, a masterplan for the zoo was developed and focused in a large part on turning smaller enclosures into larger exhibits. One of the first projects was the Southeast Asia immersion, housing orangutans and tigers. Looking to recreate a slice of Asian jungle, plants played a major role in achieving this and gave Adelaide Zoo’s horticultural team its time to shine.

Jeff explains: “The key was to find plants that could cope with Adelaide’s climate and still look lush and jungle-like”.

Bamboo species of both running and clumping varieties were selected, along with ficus and rice-paper plants to give height and leaf contrast. Designed and built predominantly in-house, the hard work and dedication behind the enclosure was rewarded with a Landscape Institute of Australia Design Award. This set the benchmark for all future projects and elevated the importance of horticulture across the precinct.

Throughout the zoo, animal welfare is paramount.

As Jeff explains: “Matching animals with the plants they would normally be surrounded by in the wild creates a comfortable environment where animals feel safe and can exhibit their natural behaviour.”

Along with plants, logs and structures, known as “furniture”, are also added to enclosures to enhance the animals’ experiences.

Jeff points to the Sumatran tiger exhibit as an excellent example of how animal welfare and plants have married together well, including a bamboo thicket planted around the perimeter that allows this powerful creature to move about the space without feeling exposed and vulnerable.

The flipside to having natural plantings is that visitors might find it difficult to spot the animals.

“Be patient,” says Jeff. “If you want to see the animals, best to approach any enclosure quietly. Stop and take your time. Look around, many animals are well camouflaged, you will eventually spot them and once you do just enjoy the experience.” Knowing which plants are compatible with the different animal species is not left to chance. A database allows zoos across the world to add information about plant types and their suitability … or otherwise. Access to this information has greatly assisted the Zoos SA horticultural staff in developing specialised and safe plant selections.

Much of the original Adelaide Zoo layout was designed and implemented by its inaugural director, Ronald E. Minchin, who cleverly incorporated the many Moreton Bay figs that existed onsite. These majestic trees now dominate the zoo’s skyline. The century-old dragon tree in the Cassowary enclosure and the zoo’s oldest plant – a yacca with an estimated age of approximately 600 years – are also integral parts of the landscape.

When it comes to planting, sourcing advanced specimens is vital. Jeff recounts his encounters with the orangutans in his early days. “I would put in small plants and the orangutans would just pull them out. They are inquisitive and curious animals and were always happy to trash my plantings. Adding advanced plants and protecting them while they established certainly helped reduce our running battles and ultimately improved their environment”.

The giant pandas’ need for a mature tree as part of their mating ritual led to the inclusion of a large mature oak being trucked in and carefully planted. While Fu Ni’s time spent in the tree and Wang Wang’s antics below are yet to result in the pitter patter of a panda cub, this stunning landscaped space, which opened in 2008, was voted the World’s Best Panda Exhibit; adding another feather in Zoos SA’s cap and highlighting Zoos SA’s credentials on the international stage.

Relocating trees within the zoo precinct has also provided another option for instant effect. Two Moreton Bay figs were trimmed, transplanted and are happily enjoying their new home as key features and playgrounds for the two Siamangs, Niran and Jars, in their Southeast Asian Island habitat.

Much planning and hard work has helped transform Adelaide Zoo into a place of horticultural excellence where well-placed trees, shrubs, climbers, and groundcover help blur the lines between exhibit and public space and enhance the enjoyment and wellbeing of animals, zoo staff and visitors alike. The green wall at the zoo’s entrance and the adjacent rooftop gardens are yet more examples of creative horticulture.

Jeff Lugg, now the zoo’s general manager of operations, has worked at Adelaide Zoo for more than three decades after starting as a horticultural apprentice.

The horticultural team now consists of nine staff, including two arborists, and a typical day for them starts with a tour of their respective areas, checking for any fallen branches or obstructions. Should any be present, they are quickly cleared and the job of trimming, mowing, mulching, watering, weeding, feeding, and planting ensures the gardens are continually maintained to the highest quality across the eight-hectare site.

Jeff is quick to recognise the support and leadership of numerous Zoos SA directors over his time, from Ed McAlister to current director Dr Phil Ainsley, along with their executive officers and boards, who have all helped raise the profile of horticulture within the Adelaide Zoo precinct.

Jeff lived onsite at the zoo for 29 years, inside the state heritage-listed Head Keeper’s Cottage, with his wife, Jennifer, and their son, who have all thoroughly enjoyed calling Adelaide Zoo their “backyard”.

“It’s been a wonderful life”, he reflects, while also singling out the Sumatran tiger as a favourite animal for its size and power.

Puspa, the zoo’s female orangutan, is looking forward to the new tree climb exhibit.

And there is always lots happening. The exciting orangutan canopy trail project is in full swing, where specially designed metal trees and connecting ropes will allow these nimble apes to enjoy freedom of movement, and visitors the opportunity to see this energetic activity.

Future projects at Adelaide Zoo include a new African Oasis creating one of the largest footprints for displaying giraffe in an inner-city zoo including allowing these iconic megafauna species to be viewed from outside the zoo grounds.

Rest assured, no matter what the project, horticulture will be front and centre of any design to ensure animal welfare and an aesthetic appeal.



This article first appeared in the February 2024 issue of SALIFE magazine.

Subscribe Today! Subscribe to South Australia's biggest-selling magazine, showcasing the best of Adelaide and South Australia. From only $9 per issue
including free delivery to your door.
Share —