As a young person, Glen Holland was a collector of creatures and a dedicated fan of Naturalist Gerald Durrell. This early devotion to animals, and the natural world, spurred on a career that would eventually see Glen working to welcome visitors to Werribee Open Range Zoo as its Director.
Working in a zoo environment seems to be a dream job for so many people, and its heart-warming to hear Glen rhapsodise about the fulfillment of his childhood dream.
“As a child, my hero was Gerald Durrell, I read all his books repeatedly and was planning to be his successor and global conservation programmes! I collected every creature I could get my hands on – my family were scared to enter my bedroom because of the menagerie of snakes, wild striped mice and other creatures that lived with me.”
Today, Glen is still surrounded my animals, but also by people, 650,000 of them each year to be exact. Visitors from near and far are sure to be delighted by the plans that are in the works for Werribee Open Range Zoo.
“Currently tourists, or visitors who are not local to the area make up 8% of our 650,000 annual visitors, but this is set to change with growth and expansion plans including a Night Safari experience.”
After researching the Singapore Night Zoo, and other international case studies, Werribee’s Night Safari will be more focussed on a celebration of African culture and wildlife.
Also in the pipeline, are plans to develop a stronger Australian experience with kangaroos and koalas, both of which are consistently popular with international visitors.
“Currently the highest number of international visitors are from China, Singapore and New Zealand but with the news of Avalon airport commencing international flights between Melbourne and Malaysia, we expect to see a lot more visitors from that region in the future. We expect visitation to pass the 1 million mark by 2025.”
With visitor numbers already high, and steadily increasing, Werribee Open Range Zoo must constantly work to understand and improve the visitor experience.
“Visitors expect to be entertained but are also after those special connections with both wildlife and the staff that look after them. The experience needs to be a well layered mixture of family fun, kids play, authentic connections, seeing animals in action and of course great coffee!
“Parents in particular love seeing their kids engaged, learning and having fun. My team and I tend to focus on a mixture of fauna, flora and culture to create a unique experience. For Werribee it is primarily African themed – animals, plants and most recently culture with an increasing number of African staff engaging with our visitors.”
Growth in the region and the popularity of the zoo have resulted in an increasing number of busy days. In order to ensure the capacity demands are met, while consistently providing a great day out, the zoo has plans for large scale expansion which will see it double in size.
“We have 250 hectares which provides a great opportunity for increasing our trails amongst herds, prides and mobs of animals in large open exhibits and the expansion will see us grow from two key experiential zones to six zones with some exciting adventure aspects.”
The plans for expansion are not only about visitor expectations, they are also about animal welfare and conservation. Zoos Victoria runs three properties as well as an impressive Fighting Extinction programme. Close to $10M a year is allocated for conservation programmes in Australia and globally.
“Conservation and animal welfare are at the heart of everything we do - our business, community engagement and messaging. We have a team of both conservation and animal welfare specialists who manage world class programmes with a consistent focus on research, learning, constant improvement and ground-breaking techniques that are truly leading.”
For Zoos Victoria, being a world leader in conservation is as much about wild living animals as it is about the resident animals on site. Elephants are amongst the most popular, making an impact with their sheer size alone.
“Once we have increased our facilities and capacity sufficiently the elephant heard will be moved from Melbourne Zoo to a 16 hectare site at Werribee Open Range Zoo, which is currently being planned with assistance from international experts. This is will be a world leading exhibit that caters for every need for the elephants, and provides opportunities for visitors to connect with these wonderful creatures and learn about the conservation programmes that the Zoos Victoria supports in Asia.”
It’s animals like these majestic elephants and the conservation efforts that they embody that keep people engaged with the work of Zoos Victoria. Over 250 000 people are members of Zoos Victoria, and represent a priority for the business in to ensuring there are regular new opportunities for members and other visitors to experience and benefit from.
“We have for example a large number of local mothers who pop into the zoo early a few times a week. It’s a chance to lets their kids enjoy the zoo while they have a coffee and relax.
“While we focus on ensuring a great baseline we also layer experiences such as family fun, presentations by our staff with animals and one-off special events. The addition of new exhibits and experiences is a key focus as well. A nice example of a unique and authentic experience is the addition of African staff into face to face engagement roles. Recent feedback from a visitor was that the time spent with a member of the African community was actually the highlight of their visit on the day. Our Safari Bus adventure is also a highlight for most visitors. It’s really authentic and quite unique.”
Providing a suitable home for vastly different animals, consistently engaging visitors and meeting all the running costs of a large business means that running the zoo costs roughly $20M to fund.
“The Zoo is a business that receives a government grant but raises 78% of its revenue. It is a complex business and achieves its revenue targets through a mixture of our admissions, retail and catering, donations and bequests, and special experiences such as our Slumber Camp and Off-road Safari.”
With $10M being allocated to conservation each year, it is vital that the business is successful enough to achieve its conservation objectives for the animals counting on it’s success. Everyone has their favourite animal, and for some choosing just one isn’t easy, especially for someone like Glen Holland. Just like Werribee Open Range Zoo, Glen’s focus is on conservation.
“I could easily provide a list of birds but in the mammals, it has to be Cheetah, their conservation status is not good and they need a lot of support, they are magnificent in build and hunting prowess but also in my youth I had some amazing opportunities to work with them hands on and they really can steal your heart.”