01/06/03 - Illusive goals

An aspiration to support wildlife conservation efforts—something that came about totally by happenstance—is becoming an integral part of the entertainment offerings of Wonderland Sydney in Australia. Last Saturday the park incorporated a tiger into its award-winning illusion show, and by the end of the year Wonderland officials hope to begin displaying non-native animals in its Wildlife park.

The roots of this effort go back 12 years when Wonderland Sydney, then six years old, opened its Australian Wildlife Park, an 11-hectare (27 acre) area with some 700 native animals. Then, at the end of 2001, the Sydney area suffered a series of brush fires, keeping people in their homes during the Christmas season, a time when Wonderland should have been enjoying its heftiest gates. 

“Because we had no one in the park we sat down as a company and thought, ‘What can we do to help?’” said Renee Ferenc, the park’s publicity officer. Because the property was surrounded by the fires, Wonderland offered itself as a rescue center for wildlife caught up in the flames, and the park became a triage center for veterinarians treating burned animals. That effort instigated “huge media attention,” Ferenc said and a resulting flood of donations. “We had people throwing money at us for the animal rescues, and we didn’t have a foundation set up to accept their money.”

The park therefore formed the Wonderland Conservation Foundation last May. For its first campaign the foundation raised $20,000 (US$12,000) for one of the country’s own endangered animals, the cassowary, a large, flightless bird that’s universally regarded as the ugliest fowl on earth. 

The new campaign is looking outside the continent by raising funds for tiger conservation efforts, and for that effort the drive has two key allies. One, Jonathan Minor, Director of Life Science and the Australian Wildlife Park, is an American who has established a reputation for bringing exotic animals to Australian theme parks, including Tiger Island at Dreamworld in Gold Coast. He joined Wonderland four years ago and started working on plans to introduce non native animals to the park.

The other ally—rather allies—are Tony and Juleen, who perform the park’s “Spellbinding Sorcery Illusion Show” and last fall were named the International Illusionists of The Year. The two are great admirers of Siegfried and Roy and had always wanted to include a tiger in their own act. With the expertise of Minor on hand they have done just that. The new act—in which Juleen enters a cage and transforms into the tiger—was introduced to the public February 22, and with it the fund-raising campaign encouraging guests to drop $1 coins in specially designated boxes.

The act has proved popular in the first week, as has the campaign, Ferenc said. Juleen especially enjoys the act because in another part of the show she turns into a snake, and she clearly prefers being a tiger (she was never transformed into a cassowary, proving that even illusionists can’t make the truly impossible possible). 

Meanwhile, Minor hopes to begin transforming the Wildlife Park’s collection by the end of the year, Ferenc said. “Now the direction of the Wildlife Park is to extend it into an exotic display with animals all over the world that we’re trying to save or promote through conservation,” she said. “That’s the vision.”