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In 1966 Murray and Gloria Powell established the Hilldale Game Farm, raising game birds for the Acclimatisation Society and exhibiting a small collection of exotic mammals. The Powells had an inspired vision and, as more species were introduced, the farm later became the Hilldale Zoo and Wildlife Park.

In 1976 Murray and Gloria generously gifted the zoo’s facilities, equipment and animals to all of us under the control of Hamilton City Council, and the Hilldale Zoological Trust was established to manage its operation.

Today it is known as the Hamilton Zoo, and it is well established as one of the city’s leading attractions, providing a world class visitor experience that inspires conservation action and is recognised for its contributions to breeding programmes for endangered species.   

Eight Southern White Rhino, once thought to be extinct, have successfully been bred at Hamilton Zoo, with the latest success - a female calf called Zahra - born on 12 March this year. It is interesting to note that individual zoos don’t make the breeding decisions. Rather this is done in consultation between the many zoos throughout Australasia as it is important to maintain essential bloodlines and avoid inbreeding.

With over 600 exotic and native animals, 45 staff and over 30 volunteers, there is much activity on the 25 hectares of lush and tranquil Hamilton Zoo enclosures situated on Brymer Rd. Bill Bolstad, a volunteer at the zoo for the last 10 years, describes the zoo as a walking safari that has a wonderful park-like atmosphere, is family friendly and, for older people, a very “manageable circuit”.

Enhancing the zoo across the road is the 60 hectare gem, Waiwhakareke Natural Heritage Park, New Zealand’s largest inland restoration project.  As a result of its development there has been a notable increase of native birds outside the free flight aviary including kereru, kaka, grey warbler and ducks.

Within the zoo itself, children can enjoy various shows such as the Spider Monkeys. Bill particularly enjoys the experience of feeding the ring-tailed lemurs, referred to by the zoo as a Face2Face Encounter, who will happily eat grapes out of people’s hands while climbing on them. He says that their size is very deceptive because, underneath all of that fur, is a tiny body.

Education is a very strong focus at Hamilton Zoo and the education staff offer specialised curriculum-based programmes tailored to cover a wide range of subjects from conservation through to mathematics, designed to inspire through engagement. Conservation Week is usually a very busy time at the zoo with many children involved in school visits. Arbor Day is also a wonderful occasion with thousands of our region’s school children enthusiastically involved in planting natives at Waiwhakareke.

Volunteers are an essential part of the zoo’s culture and Bill’s day can include answering a myriad of questions from adults and children alike, helping to prepare food for the animals, keeping an eye on people’s safety needs or observing the animals if they are displaying unusual behaviour, at the request of the keepers. “There is always something happening and I find the work here very rewarding,” says Bill.

The latest excitement is the imminent arrival of four new cheetahs. Four males will be transferring later this year from Australia, as soon as their travel permits are approved, and work on their new enclosure is well under way.

There was widespread delight in our community when Murray Powell was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (NZOM) for services to wildlife conservation and the deer industry in the recent Queen’s Birthday Honours List. As Murray is in failing health, his award was presented on behalf of the Governor-General by our Mayor at a recent lovely ceremony in the Hamilton City Council lounge, and I was privileged to join his family and other guests at that occasion. Murray’s speech acknowledging his honour was a fascinating reflection of his decades of passion for his work and enormous contribution to our region. His and Gloria’s legacy will be enjoyed and appreciated for generations to come.

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