Sydney Zoo, Bungarribee, NSW: The west gets its own world-class zoo

Lou Grossfeldt - a highly-respected chimpanzee expert and head of primates at Australia's newest zoo - is acting like a doting, khaki-clad, soon-to-be aunty, sworn to secrecy about an impending birth but incapable of containing her excitement.

"There's nothing cuter than a baby chimp, unless it's a baby orangutan or baboon," she says. "Baby elephants are so overrated."

Grossfeldt worked with primates at Sydney's Taronga Zoo for more than two decades , moving to Mogo Zoo on the NSW South Coast before taking her current position with Sydney Zoo. Sydney Zoo opens its doors on December 7 and is the first world-class breeding zoo to open in Australia for decades.

"We have 11 chimps here, so it's a healthy breeding group," Grossfeldt says. The zoo also has 13 baboons, five spider monkeys, three orangutans and 10 capuchins.

The female chimps have been weaned off their contraceptive implants and the wait is on for some babies.

"Female chimps ovulate every month, like women," says Grossfeldt, who is the co-author of Our Primate Family. Their fertile state, she adds, is signalled by a red swelling of the skin around their genitalia. "Male chimps are a bit dumb, and need a prompt," she says.

Sure enough, once I venture though the entrance turnstiles onto Primate Boulevard, several female chimps are showing the signs. 

But if it comes to betting on the next baby primate to emerge at the zoo, my money  is on a baboon. Baboons are pregnant for only six months, compared to eight months for chimps, and one is already looking maternal.

Sydney Zoo - on 16 hectares of land bordering the banks of Eastern Creek and a baboon's throw from the Great Western Highway - has been $60 million and five years in the making.


 During my visit, a month before opening weekend, construction crews are still busy with finishing touches, such as the signs identifying the zoo's six different zones: primates, Africa, Asia, Australia, the aquarium and the visionary subterranean reptile and nocturnal house. The  "rep and noc house" as it's called was designed by Misho + Associates and - you heard it here first - will win an architectural award next year. 

Grossfeldt has to rush off to help ensure the safe transfer of the meerkats. Tough job, but someone has to do it. 

Other fauna favourites, however, are already here. 

The two cheetahs, Obi and Akiki, are posing on the highest part of the tree in their moated enclosure, gazing out over a vista not dissimilar to the African savannah (apart from the Blue Mountains in the background).

The four male lions - newly arrived from Dubbo's Western Plains Zoo, courtesy of the Taronga Foundation - would normally be vying for a spot on "Pride Rock" (somebody has clearly watched The Lion King too many times) but their lair is being checked by zoo staff. So Bakari, Sheru, Virunga and Karoo lick their lips from their night cages - drooling over the zebras and ostrichs grazing below in the mixed species area. They'll soon they'll be joined by a white rhino.  

Sydney Zoo is only the second in Australia to be both zoo and aquarium (the first was Canberra's National Zoo & Aquarium) and its little penguins are entertaining a group of construction workers who are on their lunch break while the still-unnamed bull sharks prowl their (separate) domain.

Sydney Zoo is the latest incarnation of a human concept that dates back at least to ancient Egypt and China. The pharaohs kept "menageries", just as ancient Chinese rulers revelled in their "gardens of intelligence". In Bern, the Swiss capital, you can still see the deep pit that for centuries kept European brown bears captive. .

In the 21st century, zoological parks are controversial and divisive. Yet as climate change advances and humans pollute and destroy wildlife habitats, they have become less like showcases and more like refuges and visitor-funded laboratories.

Soon after it opens next weekend, Sydney Zoo will become a fully-fledged member of the Zoo and Aquarium Association Australasia (a club that can't be joined until the first paying visitor scans their ticket). 

The association is the peak Australian body representing zoos, aquariums and wildlife parks. To become a member, institutions need to demonstrate a commitment to "a science-based approach to animal welfare" and a contribution to threatened-species breeding programmes.

Its members are involved in more than 100 breeding programs and 629 conservation programs, attract 22 million visitors a year and generate more than $20 million for wildlife conservation.

"It will be easy for us to become a full association member," says Sydney Zoo's managing director, Jake Burgess. "Our enclosures are huge, and as a new zoo we don't have the legacy issues that surround older zoos.

"We've embraced the modern zoo paradigm: a lower number of species, in larger enclosures, with space and enrichment for visitors."

Burgess has professionally inspected "at least" 37 zoos in Australia and overseas since that fateful afternoon in 2012 when he sat down for a quiet beer with his father. 

 Burgess had just quit his high-paid finance career and was struggling to decide what to do next.  Dentistry start-ups were an option.

"Let's build a zoo together instead," said his father, John Burgess, the entrepreneurial founder of Darling Harbour's Sydney Aquarium and  neighbouring Wildlife World. "This is unfinished business."

The older Burgess had dreamt of building a zoo for the people of western Sydney a decade earlier, but had been diverted by the redevelopment of King Street Wharf, which allowed the creation of Wildlife World.

Sydney Zoo better encompasses John Burgess's original vision, says his son.

"We've looked at zoological best practice around the world," the younger Burgess says. "There are 20 or 30 facilities that have influenced the design of Sydney Zoo." 

Some are world famous - such as Singapore Zoo (with its night safari) or the three very different experiences under the sun shade of Zoos Victoria. "But we also saw amazing displays of small species in regional zoos which we've incorporated," he says.

So - and this is the elephant in the room - what's the relationship between Sydney Zoo and Taronga Zoo?

"Workmanlike," says Burgess. "The reality is that we've upset them slightly."

Spectacular Taronga, overlooking Sydney Harbour, threatened to take legal action against the new zoo's name, arguing that Taronga is internationally recognised as "Sydney's zoo".

But Burgess claims the two aren't competitors. 

Taronga visitors are skewed towards international and interstate tourists who combine breakfast in the Rocks and a ferry ride past the Sydney Opera House on their way to a day at the zoo.

Burgess doubts more than 15 per cent of the one million patrons expected to visit Sydney Zoo in 2020 will live east of the Gladesville Bridge, let alone be international or interstate tourists.

"No-one from Penrith will drive past us to visit Taronga as long as we provide an outstanding facility," Burgess says. "But not many did anyway. It's too far and too expensive to drive to Mosman."

The new zoo is primarily aimed at Western Sydney's vast and multi-cultural community. 

"Fifty per cent of residents in Western Sydney speak a language other than English," Burgess says. "We'll get visits from locals who are part of this broad global diaspora and hopefully, if they enjoy the experience, they'll recommend us to their visiting aunties, nieces and nephews."

Methinks Burgess is underselling Sydney Zoo's appeal.

Based on this short preview before opening weekend, I reckon the M4 will soon be nose-to-tail with  parents from Sydney's north and east heading west, keen to show their minors the meerkats - or the adorably cute newborn chimp or baboon, whichever comes first.




 Sydney Zoo is at 700 Great Western Highway, Bungarribee, about 35 kilometres from the centre of Sydney via the M4 motorway. Days passes for families start at $100 for two adults and two children. Annual membership passes for one adult and two children start at $10 a month. See 



The nation's oldest zoo, opened in 1862, is still the best according to several international polls. See


Unveiled in 1883, Australia's second oldest zoo has the only two giant pandas in the country. See


It boasts it has not been closed for a single day since the first visitors were received in 1898. See


The Sydney institution opened in Mosman in 1916, joined by its sister - Western Plains in Dubbo -  in 1979. See


Opened in 1970 by Steve Irwin's parents at Beerwah on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, it became world famous because of Irwin's TV shows. See


Established in 1989 by Sally Padly near Bateman's Bay, it was purchased last monthby Featherdale Wildlife Park. See


$60 million - The cost of opening the zoo

$45 million - Its estimated annual contribution to the NSW economy

150  - Full-time staff

16  - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island employees (10 per cent)

4 - Lions

42 - Primates

1 - Bull shark

2 - Cheetahs

20 - Nocturnal animal species Species of nocturnal animals, including the endangered spotted-tail quoll and ghost bat.

40 - Reptile species Species of reptiles, including the world's most venomous snakes - the inland taipan and eastern brown snake.