Several weeks ago, we were exploring the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, and near the outside of the entrance is a rusted gate featuring several silvery animal figures and a tiled sign above which reads “Beaumaris Zoo.” At first glance, it’s clearly dilapidated and not receiving much maintenance, if any. It had a sort of eerie ghostly feeling, even in the bright sunlight. Naturally, we were curious: can we go in and explore? Is it open? If not, when did it close?
But what does that have to do with the late-1800s mansion featured above? We’re just about to connect the dots!
Not open to visitors, you can peek in from the gates and see the remains of enclosures that once housed Tasmanian tigers, polar bears, monkeys, and more.
A glimpse as to what the zoo looked like in the 1920s.
Now, a little pre-cursor to this story. When Dave first arrived in Tasmania, he sent me some photos of the local art he was seeing—one of them was an electrical box with a Tasmanian devil painted across the front. Whenever we walk down Sandy Bay Road—one of the main streets in Hobart—we see the artistic electrical box and smile. One day a few months ago, prompted by looking more into Hobart’s many street artists, we were curious as to who painted the electrical box and why. We found the artist’s signature on the box—Ben Clifford—and realized that on the other side of it was a painting of a Tasmanian tiger. The Tasmanian tiger (less tiger related and more a marsupial) is also known as the thylacine, and is arguably one of the most famous examples of the consequences of human settlement and why conservation is so important.
What we didn’t expect to find was how the box was dedicated to Mary Roberts (this artwork is called, “For Mary”), a woman who lived down the street from where the electrical box now stands, in the late 1800s; a woman who just so happened to be a pioneering titan of Tasmanian conservation.
Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia
The more we learn about Mary Roberts, the more we are fascinated by her! Mary Grant Roberts (née Lindsay) was born in Hobart in 1841; she had a strong commitment to social justice and frequently contributed to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Wild Game Preservation Society, amongst other charities and associations. In 1877, a two acre plot of land in the fields of Sandy Bay (then the outskirts of Hobart Town) went under a two-year transformation to become the mansion she and her husband, Henry, lived in. It wasn’t long before other creatures found a home within the grounds of the mansion, dubbed “Beaumaris.”
Though Mary wasn’t formally trained in science, she was passionate about the welfare of animals and conservation; she took in a collection of exotic birds and native animals to the grounds, and she’s recognized as the first zookeeper to draw attention to indigenous Tasmanian fauna. In 1895, Mary opened the Beaumaris Zoo and introduced the public to over 120 species of birds (both native and exotic). However, as her zoo grew, she preferred the interactions she had with several native Tasmanian mammals, namely wombats, thylacines, and devils. She presented people with over 34 species of mammals, including almost all of Tasmania’s indigenous terrestrial animals. During her time running the zoo, she exhibited 16 different thylacines, and in 1909, Mary brought in a mother and her three cubs. Note: Thylacine young can be referred to either as cubs (carnivorous mammal offspring) or as joeys (marsupial offspring)!
Mom and three cubs; image courtesy of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery
While some might not be so keen on keeping these wild animals in a zoo, this was also a way to introduce the growing city of Hobart and the rest of Tasmania to indigenous animals, and show them just how important it was to keep them protected. Bounty systems for the thylacine had been in place as early as the 1830s. Settlers who arrived in Tasmania and began to cultivate livestock blamed the loss of some of their animals on the thylacine, even though feral dogs, newly-introduced cats, and widespread mismanagement were huge factors to loss of their sheep and cattle. The thylacine was a scapegoat, something to blame for their hardship, and quickly became both hated and feared by the Tasmanian public. In 1888, the Tasmanian government officially issued a bounty of £1 per full-grown animal and 10 shillings per juvenile Tasmanian tiger destroyed. This program lasted until 1909 and more than 2180 bounties were given out.
Mary went to great lengths to demonstrate how both the thylacine and Tasmanian devils were misunderstood and misconstrued to the world. In 1913, she was the first person to breed devils in captivity, and her paper The Keeping and Breeding of Tasmanian Devils (Sarcophilus harrisi) was published in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London in 1915. In it, she detailed the relationship between the mother and her newborn joeys. Mary’s thylacines delighted photographers and zoo-goers from all over. In 1911, Sir Harry Barron, the then governor of Tasmania, declared that Mrs. Roberts had tamed tigers—though he added he would not care to join them in the cage as she did. When asked if there were any creatures in her collection that she was fearful of, Mary answered that she “was on the best of terms with all except the bronze-breasted Burmese peacock, a most savage brute!”
Mary’s efforts to showcase the Tasmanian devils and thylacines in a different light was the start of something big. In the early days of the 1900s, when the humanity of animals and how delicate a species could be was not fully realized, Mary was at the forefront of conservation in Tasmania.
Don’t you wonder what this looked like in its heydey? While the house is still intact, it’s changed owners over the years and the rest of the grounds are now home to modern apartments.
This is the obstructed view from the street. Just walking by you’d never guess that this place was once the home to thylacines, Tasmanian devils, and a whole conservatory of animals!
The last known photograph of a thylacine, taken in 1933 at the Beaumaris Zoo (photographer: David Fleay)
When Mary died in 1921, ownership of her menagerie was passed to the Hobart City Council and the Beaumaris Zoo was moved from 82 Sandy Bay Road, to the site near the Government House (about 3 km away). The zoo quickly re-opened under the same name, but not for long…the Depression took its toll, and the Beaumaris Zoo closed its gates in 1937.
The saddest part? The last known thylacine died in 1936 in captivity, less than two months after official protection of the species was legislated (July 10th, 1936). That said, we think there is much to learn from the thylacine, the impact humans had on its environment, and ultimate loss of the indigenous species. The gate of the Beaumaris Zoo we mentioned earlier on was installed as part of National Threatened Species Day on September 9th, 2000.
It’s incredible that just by looking at little details (the gate and the electrical box), we unraveled a whole side of Hobart we wouldn’t know about otherwise. Would you like to learn more about the thylacine or other rockstar ladies in history? Or, if you know of any pioneers in conservation or people that worked on awesome projects, let us know in the comments below!
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