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Acclimatisation Society of Victoria

The Acclimatisation Society of Victoria (ASV) was established in 1861 when Edward Wilson, former editor of the Argus, returned to the colony from Britain. He found the Zoological Society of Victoria (ZSV) in disarray, a situation caused largely by the severely strained relationship between Ferdinand von Mueller and other active members of the society. Inspired by the acclimatisation movement in Europe, Wilson orchestrated a change of name for the society and a permanent location in Royal Park. The existing members of the ZSV such as Professor Frederick McCoy, Thomas Embling and other eminent members of the scientific and professional community, all continued to play an active role in the transformed society.

The objective of the new Acclimatisation Society was to import animals with economic, game or recreational value in large numbers so as to establish them as part of the regional livestock or wildlife. Government support made the ASV one of the wealthiest acclimatisation societies in the world. For four years, they arranged the importation of Cashmere goats, alpacas, pheasant, deer, hare, sparrows and thrushes. Once the animals had recovered from their journey, they were farmed out to friends of the society.

The introduction of songbirds contributed to the society's reputation as a misguided organisation. Contrary to the wishes of some members of the ASV, Edward Wilson imported large numbers of birds at his own expense to 'enliven' the bush. These birds provoked the only contemporary protest about the activities of the society when, in 1868, farmers complained that sparrows were destroying their fruit crops.

The ASV's active history ended in the late 1860s as expensive experiments failed and illegal hunters decimated the game animals. The society's new gardens, soon to be known as Melbourne Zoo, attracted few visitors, having no facilities or exotic animals. By 1870, the society was on the point of closing when Albert Le Souef was appointed honorary secretary and wound down the acclimatisation activities. As the emphasis of the ASV shifted towards displaying exotic animals, the society was renamed the Zoological and Acclimatisation Society of Victoria in 1872. The only acclimatisation work that continued on any scale was the propagation of trout in Victoria's inland waterways. The word 'Acclimatisation' lived on until 1957 when the organisation was finally wound up. The ZASV had given up its role in the management of the zoo in 1936.

Catherine De Courcy

de Courcy, Catherine, Evolution of a zoo: A history of Melbourne Zoological Gardens, 1857-1900, Quiddlers Press, Melbourne, 2003. Details
Gillbank, Linden, 'The origins of the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria: Practical science in the wake of the gold rush', Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 6, no. 3, 1986, pp. 359-73. Details