5 July 2023

WATCH: Animals try to unwrap presents as National Zoo and Aquarium celebrates 25 years

| James Coleman
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National Zoo and Aquarium

National Zoo and Aquarium’s Richard Tindale with the cheetahs. Photo: James Coleman.

This year marks 25 years since Richard Tindale packed up his construction business and – together with his wife Maureen – purchased seven hectares of land near the Scrivener Dam containing a small nature reserve and an aquarium bankrupted for the second time.

“It probably would have been a damn sight easier if we had bought a zoo rather than built a zoo,” he says.

“But we’ve had a lot of fun doing it.”

The National Zoo and Aquarium is celebrating the silver milestone with a suite of special events this month, starting last Friday, with wrapped boxes of food for the animals and cake for the humans.

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What began as a fascination with big cats has become a gold standard for tourism in Canberra. There are more than 900 animals at the zoo, not to mention the bustling marine life in the aquarium, enough to attract tens of thousands of visitors a year, 25,000 of whom have signed on as members.

On top of that, the Jamala Wildlife Lodge contributes 15,000 visitors per year and helps to subsidise the considerable costs.

“Not just day-to-day operations, but also funds to keep developing,” Richard says.

“The second concept in building Jamala was to get people even closer to the animals, virtually living in the giraffe yard or in the lion’s den. And the impact on people is probably 50 times higher than just reading a sign.”

Another highlight is the animal-themed ‘Adventureland’ playground.

“We have a lot of members who come once or twice a week, just for the playground,” he says.

The couple was approached by an agency in 2022 interested in purchasing equity in the zoo.

“At the time, I was doing a bit of succession planning, and I said to them, ‘Look, I’m happy to listen to offers of interest, but mainly on the joint venture type thing because we could never walk away from this,” Richard says.

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A few other prospective buyers who didn’t meet his “very stringent rules” have since been knocked back, and it remains in Tindale hands.

“Anyone who is going to look at it had to be here for the right reasons and not looking to develop it into anything other than a zoo.”

Over the next few years, there are other plans to expand the zoo by three to four hectares to include an enclosure for an animal they’ve wanted for some time.

“We never put elephants in here because we felt we could never dedicate enough space for what they need. Once we clear some more pine plantation, we’ll have enough space. Beyond that, we’ll have to request more land from the ACT Government.”

Either way, the family is confident the zoo will remain a top tourist attraction for another 25 years.

There’s a full calendar of special events over July, including a hayride behind the zoo’s tractor, a limited-time history tour giving a behind-the-scenes look at the history and evolution of the zoo, short movie screenings from a “giant movie screen”, and daily animal cakes and presents.

Visitors also enter into a draw to win a free night at Jamala Wildlife Lodge, animal encounter, gift shop voucher or Jamala Gallery voucher.

Visit the National Zoo and Aquarium website for the full list of events.

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