Welcome to our new series “Remember When”, which as the title suggests is basically just us digging back through Perth’s colourful history to look back on some of the weird and wonderful moments in this city’s relatively short history.
Depending on your vintage, you may have visited Bullen’s African Lion Safari Park yourself. Also known as Wanneroo Lion Park, it’s the only open-range zoo to have operated in the state, with lions climbing on top of visitors’ cars as they drove through the park.
First opening in 1971, the park was established after Bullen’s Circus stopped operating in 1969 – with many of the circus’ wildlife going to similar parks across the country. Upon opening, it was home to a whopping 32 lions and four cubs, who were separated into two prides – the king being a mostly-tame male named Ferocious, or Fro for short.
The park, which fundraised for the local Lions Club, was also opened in partnership with TVW (Channel 7), with cubs regularly appearing on Telethon. Families could also have their photos taken with cubs, with proceeds going to charity.
As well as lions, the park was also home to monkeys, camels, donkeys, ostriches, koalas, kangaroos, monkeys, snakes, emus and a variety of other birds – and more.
Park manager John Gilbertson was a bit of a classic ’70s character: he saw the park being built, approached the owners and had a job the next day. He also had zero experience with exotic animals – not counting the domestic cat and dog he had at home, of course.
While it was a source of wonder for many visitors, the park was was not without tragedy, with two deaths occurring as a result of lion mauling. in 1971, one man died after his arm was clawed by a lion who pushed down his window, in 1982, another man got out of his car holding a cross and walked into the middle of a pride. During the ’80s, there were also stories of escaped lions prowling through the area – however the park denied it was one from their prides.
The park eventually closed in 1988. The closure was attributed to rising costs of both animal feed and, unsurprisingly, public liability insurance – but Hollywood also played a part. Actress Tippi Hedren (most known for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds) visited the park in 1981 and expressed her concern over the lions’ living conditions, adding to the shift in public perception of the park. In the same year, RSPCA investigated the park, leading to an overhaul of the lions’ care. Sadly, upon the park’s closure, the remaining lions were euthanised.
To find out more about the wild history of Bullen’s African Lion Safari Park, we recommend you hit up the good folks at Wanneroo Community History Centre.