I have Paola to thank for dragging me along to Australia Zoo and Sea World during my recent time in Brisbane. The stated motivation for visiting the parks was to see 'animalitos', and despite my slightly lesser tendency to melt with tenderness at the sight of a small pet dog on a street corner, I enjoyed it almost as much as she did.
The word which best describes both parks would be 'slick'. Entertainment for tourists is the dominant principle, although both operations push a mild environmental message. The idea in Australia Zoo seems to be that by making snakes and crocodiles part of a showbiz spectacle, people will see what wonderful creatures they are and therefore want to protect them and their environment. However, there's no real link to a wider ecological context, and the razmatazz tends to drown out any other message.
Sea World sticks to the standard tactic of showcasing the most lovable marine animals, and are so successful that despite the environmental angle being even thinner than at Australia Zoo, most visitors who have seen the sea lion and dolphin shows would probably depart feeling inclined to tear apart a drift net with their hands and teeth if necessary.
The photos are 800 x 600 and can be enlarged by clicking.
Close to the best, as well as the most manipulative, spectacle at Sea World was the 20-minute 'Fish Detetectives' show, a semi-coherent narrative about illegal overfishing in which the actors included two sea lions and one seal. Cued by hand signals, and regularly rewarded for good performance by a fish or three, the marine mammals slid, swam, searched, chased, saluted, whispered and embraced, leaving most of the female audience members to file out in a tearful state of joy at their overwhelming cuteness.
As part of the twice-daily show at Sea World, the trainers surf across the pool on the back of the dolphins -- or rather, the dolphins agree to carry the trainers for a short burst in return for generous servings of fish.
But the real stars of the show are the dolphins themselves, who splash, leap and somersault with such enthusiasm that it's easy to forget they do it on cue twice daily.
As we filed out the side of the open-air theatre after the show, a couple of the trainers were taking questions and explaining things to the last handful of people to leave. The dolphins swam right up to edge of the pool and milled about, allowing me to get several close-up photos.
Elephant feeding is a daily feature at Australia Zoo. We just missed forming part of the hundred or so people who lined up to serve each Asian elephant a carrot, which it politely snaffled with its trunk and deposited into its mouth. These animals certainly get their 5+ per day.
At Australia Zoo, visitors can look through glass windows into a small enclosure where animal trainers play with eighteen-month old Sumatran tiger cubs. According to one of the trainers, who sustained a running commentary over the microphone, they work with the tigers daily, encouraging them to engage in natural behaviours of running, leaping and attacking, but also building a relationship of discipline and respect (kind of like coaching the under-16 rugby team).
In the 'Crocoseum' at Australia Zoo, Steve Irwin's wife still carries on the family tradition of baiting a 15-foot crocodile with strips of meat, as well as her and the other zoo staff's presence. In another part of the show, the crocodile attacked a dangling 'leg-like' object attached to the end of a long stick. The trainer doing the running commentary became ecstatic as the croc twisted and battered the object into submission. "Two, three, four death rolls!", he enthused. "Four death rolls -- that's a new record!".