The popularity of Netflix series Tiger King got many Cantabrians reminiscing on New Zealand's own Joe Exotic – Bill Grey and his North Brighton Zoo. His suburban backyard menagerie included Susie the lioness, a tiger, panther, saltwater crocodile, and troops of misogynistic monkeys prone to pickpocketing and even escape. Herald senior journalist Kurt Bayer looks back on a classic slice of Kiwi history that could never be repeated today.
The deep, bellowing roar would wake Erin Shatford. A primal sound piercing in her innards, 25 times louder than a lawnmower. It would rumble not across the great grassy plains or savannas of Africa but rather the sandy eastern Christchurch suburb of North New Brighton – and, if the wind was right, for kilometres beyond.
Over the back fence, Samantha McGruddy knew the roar meant time for school. The loudest of all big cats, king of the beasts. Her brother would roar back.
And when Ann Macfarlane parked beside old Bill Grey's beat-up green Chrysler Valiant, outside 153 Beach Rd at 8am, she would hear Susie's throaty bellow too.
The roar. It's how they all started their days.
Macfarlane visited North Brighton Mini-Zoo as a small child and knew then: "I'd love to work here." After entering a nondescript house with a tidy front garden and into the acre-property's rear, it was like entering a new world; a ramshackle Noah's Ark. In various concrete rooms and outdoor homemade mesh cages, some only just bigger than the animals themselves, was crammed one of the most unusual and diverse collections of exotic animals ever assembled during New Zealand's history. Four ex-circus big cats – Susie, Sabre the leopard, black panther Sultan and Rheena the female Bengal tiger - along with a pair of bobcats, servals and caracals. A chattering array of monkeys: pig-tailed macaques, bonnet macaques, crab-eating macaques, three De Brazza's monkeys, rhesus macaques, black-capped capuchins, and a Geoffroy's spider monkey. Red-necked wallabies, meerkats, tropical fish, chirping parakeets, emus and kea. In a cramped concrete, shallow pool, an ancient saltwater crocodile, cold-blooded, idle till dinnertime.
The zoo started almost accidentally - or organically in modern speak. William Aubrey Grey's love of animals began early in life. Born in the coastal suburb of Redcliffs in 1914, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, he helped his father on a farm and milk round.
After his father's untimely death, he was packed off to Greymouth to live with relatives, where he'd go on to work as a woodsman and develop an interest in trotting.
Returning to Christchurch in the 1930s, Grey worked as a butcher before joining the freezing works. He enlisted in the army in World War II but was manpowered out as an essential worker in the works.
Around then, he met Jack Taylor, owner of a small aquarium at North New Brighton. They became good mates and Grey began helping out, soaking up everything about tropical fish. In 1954, Taylor imported two saltwater crocodiles from Australia. They were babies, just 35cm long. One of them, Charlie – posthumously renamed Charlene after a necropsy discovered He was a She - would grow to nearly 3m and spend the next 40 years filling out a small tank.
Grey eventually moved into a room at the rear of the Beach Rd property and, when Taylor offered to sell him the place in 1958, he jumped at the chance.
Operating out of a tight car garage-sized building, with small tanks housing common aquarium fish, axolotls, seahorses and snake-necked turtles, Grey set up a fish club, welcomed visitors and gave talks. He started importing and exporting tropical fish all around the world.
One day, a woman showed up with a monkey on a chain. Grey was tickled and hatched the idea of expanding the aquarium into a "mini zoo", taking over a large vacant section of land next door.
He built up North Brighton Zoo over decades, slowly adding to his collection.
By late 1993 it was brimming with animals and humming with trade. Entry was $3 for adults and $1.50 for children. Tins of chopped fruit and vegetables to feed to the animals could be bought for 20c.
Macfarlane was then in her early 20s. She'd heard that Grey was looking for a full-time zookeeper. Without boasting any relevant experience, other than the usual pet dog and cat, she made her mind to visit Grey and push for the job.
Grey was doubtful. "He wasn't going to employ me, because I was a young girl in her 20s."
So Macfarlane offered to work without pay for a month and prove her worth. She ended up staying until Grey closed the roadside zoo when he retired in 1996, aged 82.
"It was the best job I ever had and to this day I still miss it," she says. "I was heartbroken when it closed. If it was still open, I think I'd still be there. Bill was a man so full of knowledge. I learned so much from him – about animals, how to weld, all sorts of things."
She looked after all the monkeys, otters, meerkats, birds and fish. Macfarlane left Grey with his "precious" Susie the lioness, who he used to cuddle every day and scratch the big cat's tummy. However, she avoided Charlie the crocodile, who scared her.
The monkeys were her favourites. Although she received a few bites, she never backed down and soon made "friends".
"It didn't take too long either, because Bill had such a great rapport with all those animals and, because they were hand-reared mostly and used to people, getting a rapport was quite easy. They just needed to trust you and after that, they were great."
They each had their own distinctive personalities too. Macfarlane's young children played Dinky cars with an inseparable pair of macaque monkeys, Donny and Carol. Donny was a light-fingered pickpocket with a penchant for spectacles or sunglasses. The posturing old male monkey, Phil. A capuchin called Tony disliked the fairer sex. A sign on his cage warned, "I hate women".
"I never got too friendly with him either – I hardly went in there," she says. "He bit me a few times."
Other signs warned: "These animals bite."
"You could generally tell when they were a bit s***ted-off about something and you knew you're not going anywhere near them at the moment because they're a bit s***ted-off about something," Macfarlane recalls. "Sometimes them getting shitted-off would be from members of the public teasing them. There was a lot of that going on."
Leon Fox, now aged 60, was a mini-zoo regular for years and teased the monkeys with his brother. "I guess they'd had things thrown at them and been taunted by kids for 20 years but boy, were they foul-tempered little things."
Fox remembers a pigtailed macaque who'd become infuriated by the schoolboys pulling faces and would "go loopy and start biting itself". They used to collect red apples from their backyard and hand them to the monkeys, who would store them in their cheeks. When they couldn't fit any more fruit in their mouths, the boys would hand them one more for each hand through the wire so that they could not pull their hands back in, prompting fits of giggles.
He also has strong memories, some 45 years vintage, of Sultan the panther, prone to peeing on punters, with its taught, rippling muscles and a nonchalant, flat-capped Grey stepping into its cage. "It was a mix of the horrifying and enchanting, all at the same time.
"As kids we were fascinated by the place - you could get so close to everything." Fox attributes those early zoo visits to a lifelong interest in animals and conservation.
Shatford grew up next door on Beach Rd. She wandered in whenever she wanted. The monkeys, even Tony, adored her. Bill would bring him over to clamber over their couch, and once, even took her into Susie's enclosure. Often after school, her sister would walk around with a monkey on her shoulder.
Over the back fence on Pegasus Ave, McGruddy's family house backed on to a monkey enclosure. They kept a ladder permanently propped on the fence so the kids could interact with the animals. They'd toss bread and, one holidays, piles of Christmas puddings for the monkeys to feast on.
One day she dropped something over the fence and had leaned over to try and retrieve it. She had no fear of the monkeys by then and was shocked when the monkeys grabbed her ponytail and wouldn't let go. "They had me there for so long, I couldn't get my head back up, I was so freaked out. Finally they just let go."
Another fine afternoon, she was reading in her backyard, engrossed in the story, when she felt the presence of something nearby. She looked up and saw a monkey sitting beside her. Arnie, a large pigtailed macaque, had escaped while his cage was being cleaned and had spent the last few hours hopping across rooftops while staff tried enticing him back. There are several stories of monkey escapes. Shatford's mum was outside cracking nuts on her backyard path the day Arnie strolled past.
It was only when McGruddy saw Arnie perched beside her that she suddenly noticed the search calls for Arnie. She tried grabbing him but he bit her arm. Annoyed - and vowing "not to back down to a monkey" - she wrapped him in her jersey and climbed the ladder to get the zoo workers' attention. "If you're looking for the monkey, I've got him!" And she passed the monkey back over the fence before going to A&E for a tetanus shot.
Although McGruddy and Shatford both loved growing up beside the attraction, not everyone shared their views. As the area became more populated, some residents began complaining about the noise and smell of the place.
By the 1980s, it was also attracting the ire of animal rights groups who were outraged at the poor, cramped housing conditions. Protests took place outside, calling on the council to take action. Grey was regularly inspected by the old Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) and the SPCA.
Grey, who died in 2003 aged 89, argued that many of the animals were ex-circus – including Susie who had been born at Ballarat Lion Safari Park in Victoria and imported into New Zealand as a cub in the early 1970s - and that they had nowhere else to go. Everyone spoken to by the Herald for this article said Grey was passionate about every animal and that they were all well cared-for. An example of his animal husbandry skills lies with his otter breeding programme. Grey was the first person in New Zealand to successfully breed small-clawed otters and ended up supplying other zoos around the country.
"There were a few haters," Macfarlane says. "I'd turn up for work and there they'd be, all the protesters out the front. But those people never really understood those animals couldn't be anywhere else. They were hand-reared and used to being cuddled and played with – they could never survive in the wild. They were all very well-loved."
She'd pick up donated bread, rolls, fruit and vegetables leftovers from local shops, bakeries and supermarket, while Grey got his carnivores meat from North Canterbury farmers.
"They ate very well," says Macfarlane, who was stunned when one day in 1996, Grey told her he was retiring and the place was being shut down. He was getting on and made little money from running the place. And the protests were getting to him.
Now they needed to find new homes for the animals. Most of the monkeys and otters went to Natureland Wildlife Trust in Nelson, Macfarlane says. Others went to Franklin Zoo, Moana Zoo and Pouakai Zoo.
But Millie, an elderly monkey, didn't find a new home and was put down. "I'd imagine when they dug up that property for the new houses, they would've found all sorts of things … lots of skeletons. It was a big deal to Bill when they passed away, he became extremely upset. He'd bury them there and make little graves and headstones for the animals."
Susie was Bill's biggest priority and Orana Wildlife Park seemed the best option. The Christchurch open-range zoo had an existing lion pride and, until the previous year, had been famous for its drive-through lion reserve, where the public could drive their own family cars through the lion reserve and the big cats would scramble over their bonnets and roofs.
So Susie was carted off, along with two serval cats, to Orana Wildlife Park in 1996. However, she would never have survived if she was put with the Orana pride and had to live apart, dying the following year of renal failure at the advanced age of 23. Although they live longer in the pampered conditions of captivity, the average lifespan of a wild lion is 13 years.
Everyone agrees that North Brighton Zoo was a product of its time and would never be allowed to operate today.
"Things were a lot more … relaxed back then," Macfarlane admits. "You certainly couldn't open a place like that now."
Today, owners and operators of zoos, including wildlife parks, sanctuaries, and circuses, have to meet requirements under the Biosecurity Act 1993 and Animal Welfare Act 1999.
Any zoos holding exotic animals that were not present in New Zealand immediately prior to July 29 1998, or were only ever held in zoos before then, must also meet the requirements of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act 1996. They must also come up to the Zoo Containment Standard, approved by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), which specifies the requirements for holding and managing "new organism zoo animals" to ensure they do not escape.
A spokeswoman for Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) says the rules around importing animals, and keeping them, have "changed significantly" in recent years.
"A zoo containing exotic animals would not meet the required standards to be located on a residential property today," she says.
For those who visited during between the 1960s to mid-1990s, most have vivid memories, even if they were often saddened at the size of the cages.
"When you look back on it and think about things in 2020 terms, it was pretty crazy," Shatford says. "It wasn't that long ago but so much has changed in society. Something like that could never be able to open again."
"But at the time," Fox adds, "it seemed really normal. As a kid, I didn't think anything of being able to go into someone's backyard and look at a lion. I guess it was just the way the world was then. It was just nuts, really, but totally wonderful at the same time."