Melbourne Zoo puts the animal into night with interactive evening tours 

Melbourne Zoo has come a long way since the bad old days of tiny concrete cages and elephant rides. These days the animals are housed in pens approximating their natural habitat, with enrichment programs, closely monitored diets and every other effort made to ensure their emotional and physical well-being. One thing that hasn’t altered over the years is the perception that visiting the zoo is for kids and families – but Melbourne Zoo is out to change this with the launch of I, Animal, an interactive multi-media tour just for adults. 

A collaboration with contemporary performance ensemble The Border Project, the tour takes place at night and offers four different themes, all designed to give audiences an experience unlike any other they have had at the zoo. 

Participants don earphones to plug into an iPod-like personal device called the ‘‘Zoe’’ which allows them to explore the zoo via a part-audio, part-interactive screen tour. Created by Art Processors, the team responsible for the ‘O’ device used at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, the Zoe relates interesting animal facts and entertaining and challenging episodes from the zoo’s 150-year history, inviting people to reflect on their own lives in comparison with those of the animals. 

There is also some audience participation in the form of acting out animal behaviour, which draws on The Border Project’s performance roots and their experience creating I Am Not An Animal, a temporary installation performance at Adelaide Zoo in March this year.

“The challenge this time was to create a similar immersive experience, but robust enough to stand the test of time,” says Dan Koerner, who was the director of I, Animal along with Sam Haren at The Border Project. 

“Each of the four loops that the audience can follow has a particular narrative around how we identify ourselves as humans.” 

Although I, Animal is aimed squarely at adults, much of the experience is engineered to get participants into something of a childlike state.

“We really wanted to design an experience for the audience that gave them space, away from the rat race to stop and reflect on who they are, what has happened in their lives and where they are going,” says Koerner. “To get into this headspace we felt it was important for the audience to contrast their life now as adults to what they thought would happen when they were kids.”

While some of the tales in I, Animal amuse – did you know the zoo conducted an official search for a bunyip in 1890 and even readied an enclosure to house one? – Zoe also delves into deeper topics like death, fear and love and poses some philosophical questions about our origins and future. In this way, the tour takes its participants to visit various animals, as well as a unique personal journey inward.

“We felt that it was important for audience members to reflect not just on their own personal experience as human beings but on the human race as a whole,” says Koerner. 

“This directly concerns our evolution as a species and what might come next for us. Where have we come from as human beings? What distinguishes us from the animals we share the planet with and what might come next for us as a species?”

They’re not exactly the kind of questions that might arise if you were taking the kids to see the lions – but that’s the whole point, says Koerner, who hopes the experience will inspire a less traditional demographic to visit and view animals in a new light.

“We sincerely hope that I, Animal audiences come away feeling uplifted and that their perceptions of themselves, their place in their animal kingdom and their experience of the Melbourne Zoo have shifted in some way,” he says. “Above all, though, we hope visitors recognise the fragility of life on earth – particularly those we share this planet with.”

I, ANIMAL 

Where: Melbourne Zoo, 

Elliott Avenue, Parkville.

When: Daily from 6.30pm

Details and bookings: visit zoo.org.au/melbourne/whats-on/i-animal

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