Crocodiles and monkeys, llama and eagles - the Ballarat Zoo

Snappy: George Langley's hand-reared crocodiles in 1952.
Snappy: George Langley's hand-reared crocodiles in 1952.

It’s a rare part of Ballarat’s historical record that isn’t buried in the Goldfields somehow, but the city’s very own zoo wasn’t established until well after the rushes were over, the grand buildings completed, and the Great War nearing its end.

Located within the Botanical Gardens, the zoo existed for just obver 40 years, courtesy of a generous bequest by a Ballarat jeweller named Heinrich Ben Jahn.

Known as Henry, Mr Ben Jahn had travelled from his native Prussia as a 24-year-old, arriving in the colony in 1854 aboard the Oliver Lang

According to Federation University, he was naturalised in Ballarat in 1856, at 25. A gold assayer and jeweller, he lived at first in Grenville Street.

In 1864 he owned a shop and home on the corner of Albert Street and Lewis Street. The university says he ‘invested judiciously in gold mining, owning shares in the Chryseis Mining Company in Durham Lead and Erin-Go-Bragh Quartz Mining Company at Hiscocks near Buninyong as well as the Old Camp Gold Mining Co. in Ballarat.’

Obviously Mr Ben Jahn did very well for himself. In 1908, at the great age of 77, he recounted a 21-month journey he took through New Guinea, the Philippines, Japan, China, Siberia through to Moscow, Denmark and then to his native Germany (where he was laid up unwell for eight weeks) before undertaking the arduous journey back to Ballarat.

Cute but snappy: Ballarat Zoo curator with three hatchling crocodiles he raised.

Cute but snappy: Ballarat Zoo curator with three hatchling crocodiles he raised.

Ben Jahn returned to Germany where he died in Silesia in 1911. He left his entire estate to the Ballarat City Council, worth some £10,000, for the establishment of a permanent menagerie.

By 1917 council had fulfilled his final wishes and the zoo opened on April 4, 1917 as part of a gala day welcoming home servicemen from the First World War.

The Courier reported that a Ministerial Party, including the Victorian Chief Secretary Donald McLeod, had travelled from Melbourne for the day and approached the new Zoological Gardens to strains played by the Ballarat Orphanage Band.

Mr McLeod opened the zoo, and made a speech in which he declared it would be yet another attraction to the many already existing in Ballarat, the newspaper reported.

“Ballarat was blessed more than any other town in Victoria that he knew with public-spirited citizens, who remembered what they owed to Ballarat, and endeavoured to repay it by beautifying and adorning the city by the splendid statues, some of which had a worldwide reputation.

“It was not so easy to instil this civic pride into our young people as it was in older countries, for they moved about so much that they tended to become cosmopolitan. It was, however a desirable thing to cultivate, for love for their town was followed by love for their country and for the Empire.”

The Courier, Ballarat, April 5, 1917.

And so the Ballarat Zoo came into existence, sustained for a time by the funds bequeathed by Heinrich Ben Jahn, and then by council. At its outset it contained largely birds and a few kangaroos, wallabies and ‘paddy melons’ (pademelons) –  and a lonely wombat.

For the next 30 years the zoo welcomed children and adults alike, with a variety of animals including, in popular mythology, a Tasmanian tiger in the late 1940s. Most likely a stuffed skin, it fed into a greater popular memory that the zoo, which at its largest was only just a hectare (two acres), had contained two polar bears, a giraffe and amazingly an elephant.

Although it was representative in some ways of a Victorian Zoo in the architecture of its cages – steel bars arched above concrete floors – the zoo was in reality a slightly glorified petting park much of the time, certainly incapable of housing exotic creatures from Africa. There was a baby camel (which died in 1939). In the same year feral cats laid waste to the angora rabbits (11 dead, culprit killed by Mr Waight, the curator) By the end of the Second World War it was also closed: the cages empty, fences fallen and overgrown with weeds and bushes bushes.

Council offered the running and business of the zoo to local pet merchant George Langley for five shillings a year, and he moved into the zoo premises with his wife Theresa and five children: Sylvia, Joan, Helen, Laura and George Junior in about 1950.

They brought with them three crocodiles, which George Senior had hatched from eggs delivered by a mate from Queensland.

Nicknamed Dopey, Sleepy and Grumpy, the Langley children, now all in their 70s and 80s, said the saurians soon became front-page news – and their nicknames were far from the truth.

Sylivia Langley (now Bauer) said the crocs were savage beasts from the moment they hatched.

She recalls they were so vicious they would “take your finger off if they could.”

The baboons were savage too, she said; her father had to beat them back with a shovel if he went near them. One though, a grey female named Flossie, took a liking to Sylvia and protected her when she cleaned the enclosure.

George Langley proved to be a great showman running the zoo, with highlights such as a pit full of local and imported deadly snakes which the children helped catch and then milk for venom.

Contemporary photographs show Helen in her sundress, bare-armed, holding a venomous snake up to the camera with a smile on her face.

Daughter Laura says some of her favourite memories are of a wedge-tailed eagle with an enormous wingspan and the brightly coloured peacocks; the joy of raising newly born joeys and wombats.

And while some things have faded from memory, Laura is adamant about one thing.

“There was NEVER an elephant there, not while we were. I think I’d remember that. I mean, where would you PUT it? How could you feed it?”

Sadly, while the zoo run by the Langleys was a popular success, it wasn’t financially. The cost of the maintenance of the zoo and the feed required became too onerous. It closed in 1959, the remaining animals sold off. Nothing remains bar two sad concrete animal refuges, and their fate is not secure.