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Giant Tortoise Sectioned

By: Rose Docker, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 05 Feb 2014

The Australian Museum Trust minutes are a continuing source of wonder.

Krefft's Turtles

Chris Hosking © Australian Museum

A curious entry from January 1870 which reads ‘Large live tortoise to be sent to Insane Asylum’ undoubtedly raises a number of questions.Not the least of which is - what was a giant tortoise doing wondering the grounds of the Museum 140 years ago?

The Royal Australian Historical Society’s website claims that Australia’s first zoo was established in November 1848 in Hyde Park - a small menagerie ‘run by the Australian Museum’. At the time the Museum’s current premises (just across the road from the park) - on the corner of Park and College streets, were still in the course of construction.

It would be another year before the Museum’s stuffed specimens and human staff would be fully transferred to the new site – but according to newspaper reports, some of our earliest exhibits may in fact have been quite ferocious.

The Sydney Morning Herald of November 14, 1848 stated that our first park exhibit was a ‘tigress’. Over the next five or six years there would also be mentions of a grizzly bear, a native dog, two eagles, and an emu. But whether these ‘live’ donations were too costly to feed or were simply too much extra work to maintain for the already overworked Curator ‘Mr Wall’, in 1854 the Trust agreed to send ‘the living animals’ to Mr Beaumont’s Zoological Gardens at Botany.

Fifty pounds was handed over by Mr Beaumont to the Trust for the cage to transport the bear and tiger and yet en-route disaster struck. Whilst on the Botany road the restless bear escaped from the ‘van’ in which it was ‘being conveyed’ and a group of frightened locals descended with their guns and shot and killed it. ‘The tiger was in the van at the time, but although it was upset, that savage beast fortunately did not get out’, reported the Herald of December 25, 1854.

But that certainly wasn’t the last we know of live animals on site – as the poor giant tortoise’s removal to the asylum in 1870 suggests. Under our colourful German Curator Gerard Krefft in the 1860s and early 70s it seems there were also dogs, geese, snakes, and even ‘an educated pig from New Guinea’ that Krefft described as being so tame ‘that it follows me around, up the stairs and down…it is a funny little fellow.’

Unfortunately along with Krefft’s forced departure in 1874 the Trust minutes also tell us that there were ‘two live pigs to be disposed of.’ To add to the confusion of this mini menagerie seemingly inhabiting the museum building and grounds, it is also reported that the doorway recess into the Museum’s original building, housed an aviary. Luckily for unsuspecting museum visitors, when the Lewis wing was renovated in 1890 with the addition of a third storey – this avian entrance was removed.

Exhibiting live snakes was still being discussed by the Trust in 1877 – but it’s not until 1962 that we see the reptiles and insects officially back in force with a series of temporary live animal exhibits.

Over the next decades live animals continue to make appearances in various temporary exhibitions and displays and today you can still see live snakes, lizards, a crocodile and fittingly even Krefft’s turtles [Emydura krefftii] in the Surviving Australia gallery; you can be amazed by the jewel-like beauty of the green tree frogs in Kids Space; or even chat to giant phasmids (stick insects) in Search and Discover.