Animal Tourism + The Willowbank Wildlife Reserve

I don’t like zoos.

I am certain this would be a highly debated topic if I had a large audience prone to commenting on posts. It’s just one of those hot button topics du jour. Thanks to documentaries like Blackfish and some major players in the tourism world shutting down long-open establishments, the tide, I believe, is shifting in my direction.

But how do we move forward from such a long standing system of… what?

Willowbank Wildlife Reserve

Entertainment? Education? Exploitation?

Traditional zoos are places I avoid like Melania avoids the White House. Not only because I want the dollars that I spend to mean something, but the dollars that I don’t spend to mean even more. If zoos stopped being profitable, i.e. people stopped visiting them, they would be forced to shut their doors. But what about the animals? I feel confident that PETA and other like-minded organizations would step in to ensure they lived out as happy a life as possible, while no longer continuing the cycle of exploitation.

Willowbank Wildlife Reserve

But mainly I avoid zoos because they make me incredibly sad. I do not delight in seeing a tiger enclosed behind glass panes and/or steel fencing.

The last time I visited a zoo was almost a decade ago, before I had really considered that confining animals in such a way would be, could be bad. But I remember how underwhelmed I was by the visit. It left such a bad taste in my mouth. Looking back now I know it was the feeling of witnessing exploitation that left me uncomfortable with the whole experience. No living creature should be subjected to a life of confinement and exploitation.

All of that being said, after returning from our journey to find the Kea, Jason and I stumbled upon the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve.

Willowbank Wildlife Reserve

Doing a little research on the facility, it seemed as though it might be a reputable establishment, genuinely concerned for the well being of all animals. My gut was telling me something about it was sketchy, but we went against my instinct and visited anyway.

I should have known from the moment I saw a display of animal food for sale to turn around and leave.

Side note – If we take children to “wildlife reserves” and allow them to feed the animals, does that not teach them that feeding wild animals is acceptable? Further, that you can lure them in for closer inspection by offering them treats? I did not come across a single parent that seemed interested in making this distinction to their child, which concerns me.

The park is laid out in a loop that takes you through three different focuses: Wild New Zealand, Heritage New Zealand and Natural New Zealand. Each segment highlighiting different aspects of New Zealand’s fauna.

  • Wild New Zealand: The website would have you believe that this area is where they address the devastating impact that introduced species have had on New Zealand’s fragile ecology. Walking through this section, however, I did not see a single sign that discussed this. Each “exhibit” simply had a marker denoting what the animal was, where it was originally from and a small anecdote. Never even touching on the impact .

Swans at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve

Swan Information Sign at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve
This is an example of ALL the information provided about an introduced species

Swan at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve

  • Heritage New Zealand: This is essentially a livestock exhibit, showcasing the various breeds of cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens, etc… that proliferate throughout the country.
  • Natural New Zealand: This is what everyone comes for – the fauna native to New Zealand and nowhere else. Kiwi, Kea, Kaka… they like their k’s here.
Kiwi at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve
Photo by J. Howell Photography

Willowbank Wildlife reserve would like you to believe that it is a sanctuary for endangered animals. Referring back to their website, they are accomplishing great things in the world for the Kiwi bird. They have pairs of breeding Kiwis in enclosures, ensuring they live a safe and relatively normal life. They also retrieve eggs from the wild, where they are incredibly vulnerable, to be hatched and released into the wild once at adulthood. According to the DOC website, 19 out of 20 Kiwis hatched in the wild do not make it to breeding age, due to predators, such as dogs.

These are important works, which is why I am conflicted. Obviously they need funding in order to carry out these good deeds. And visitors to the park supply those funds. But everything else in the park, with the exception of one adorable beak-less Kea, I take issue with.

Ring Tailed and Black and White Ruffed Lemurs.

Lemurs at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve

Lemurs are native to Madagascar, an island nation off the coast of southern Africa. Why are there lemurs in New Zealand? The “reserve” does not go into any detail about their origin. There were at least a dozen of the two different types of lemurs, and the only explanation given is that two of them were born there in captivity within the last few years. Where did the rest come from?

I just don’t see the point in perpetuating the imprisonment of an animal in a place so vastly different from its natural habitat. The average annual low temperature in Madagascar is 59F. Christchurch’s average low in the peak of summer is six degrees cooler than that, at 53F. No wonder each of the lemurs perked up in the moments the sun broke through the clouds, spreading out their bodies to get the most exposure.

Lemurs at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve

Lemurs at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve

The lemurs seem to be there solely for the purposes of upselling tickets. While there is no explanation as to why they have lemurs, there are many signs posted urging patrons to take advantage of “The Lemur Experience” where a guide will take a group of people into the lemur enclosure (which is pitiful, btw) so they can feed them and get their picture taken, for just $30 NZD, not including the park entrance fee.

Feels a bit exploit-y to me.

Lemur Experience at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve

Siamang Gibbons.

Gibbons are another creature that have no business being in New Zealand, since they are originally from the tropical climate of South East Asia. Willowbank has two gibbons, a male and female. During our visit we were able to see their relatively newborn infant – fun fact, baby monkeys are called infants, too, and oh my goodness, so incredibly adorable! This little gibbon has an older brother who has been sent to the Auckland zoo for a breeding program.

Gibbons at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve
Photo by J. Howell Photography

This is yet another moment in the day that caused me great internal conflict. It is wonderful that we are able to provide a safe environment where these animals can live and breed, especially since they’re numbers are dwindling due to rapid deforestation. However, their quality of life seems terrible. Gibbon families are accustomed to roaming a forest territory from 30 to 50 acres. Their Willowbank enclosure is the size of a studio apartment in Manhattan. And to reiterate, it gets really cold in here! These animals are not evolutionarily programmed to live in temperate climates. Even Auckland is not an appropriate climate for these animals.

All of the Birds.

Well, the ones that can fly, at least. Again, tiny enclosures. Birds are meant to fly. Uh, duh.

Sulphur Crested Cockatoo at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve
Enacting their escape – can you spot them?

Visiting the kea enclosure, the reason we went in the first place, was probably the most depressing part of the whole experience. There were a couple kea scattered around the top of the enclosure, which was maybe the height of a two-story building. The rest were huddled in a rocky outcrop in the shade. These are alpine birds – they like the cold and the mountains. Here we were at the other end of the spectrum, in terms of climate and natural habitat.

Kea at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve

With loads of sunlight gleaming through the netting above, this area is clearly too warm for the comfort of these cold-natured creatures. They exhibited none of their characteristic mischievous antics and personality. Whether that is because they’re spirit has been dampened by captivity or simply because they’ve been trained to only perk up when the “trainers” arrive with honey for those visitors who’ve, you guessed it, paid for a special kea experience.

Surprisingly the only kea who exhibited any enthusiasm was one that has clearly had a hard life. He was missing his beak and hobbled around on his little bird feet.

Kea at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve

Other things of note.

I could ramble on for thousands of words here, so I am going to cut myself (a little) short and finish with a just a few other insights.

On their website they claim to have 3 orphaned wallabies. Wallabies are originally from Australia but have been introduced into the wild in New Zealand. However, the park has waaaay more than three in their enclosure. So, are they being bred? Why couldn’t they have been rescued, raised and released? And if release is not an option, why do you need to breed them in captivity (if that is being done – I couldn’t find any statement as to why they have the number they do)? Wallabies are not an endangered animal. They do mention on the site that they love to be hand fed. Of course they do!

Wallaby at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve

Emus are another Australian animal found at Willowbank. There is some evidence that feral emus exist in New Zealand – likely farm escapees, however Willowbank did not go into discussing the origins of their emus. Known to travel great distances in the wild, the emus were some of the saddest animals we encountered – constantly pacing at the fence line to the point that there is a clearly worn down path on which they now walk. This is another animal that is nowhere near the vulnerable species list, let alone endangered. What is the purpose of their captivity beyond entertainment?

Emu at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve

Finally, straying away from the wild animals to a domesticated one. Willowbank has a clydesdale at the park. Having been around horses most of my life, and knowing how intelligent and feeling they are, I can only imagine how bored and frustrated he must be, stuck in a stall for most of his life. Perhaps he is let into a pasture at night… but I don’t know. I can only hope.

Thoughts to end on.

I think in my perfect world zoos would no longer exist. Any wild animal currently in captivity would be allowed to live out its life in as nice a facility as possible. No wild animals would be born into captivity unless for the purposes of growing numbers of endangered species. And I really feel that animals should be kept in their natural environments. Lions should be in Africa and polar bears should be in the arctic.

That is obviously unrealistic in the world we live in today, but I have hope.

Willowbank Wildlife Reserve

The most important question?

What is the best way to move forward?

Bottom line: in my personal opinion, this is a glorified zoo and I do not recommend visiting if animal activism is something that speaks to you. However, if you are super gung-ho about zoos, maybe visit this one (or one similar) over your average zoo that does little in the way of conservation. Also, please teach your children that hand feeding wild animals is BAD.

Disclaimer – I am not some crazy PETA person who thinks that everyone should be vegan or that anyone who hunts should be put in jail. If anything I have a broader outlook than most as I have raised and slaughtered poultry in my previous work as a farmer. All I believe is that animals should be treated with respect, not like property, and that it is worth questioning the status quo if you don’t feel right about it.

How do you feel about zoos? Do you think the animals at your local zoo have a good quality of life? Let me know in the comments.


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