Just past midnight, in the early morning of 17 July 2000, a faulty electrical connection led to a devastating fire that consumed most of the main building of the Australian Reptile Park. Fire crews were initially joined by staff in a brave, but hopeless effort to stem the spread of the blaze. Overnight, the future of the world famous attraction – which had been a national tourism award winner for the previous two years, became uncertain.
The most difficult challenge immediately confronting the Australian Reptile Park team was the paralysing realisation that nearly all of the many hundreds of reptiles, frogs and spiders that had been maintained in the building had died. Many of these had been with the Park for 25 years and longer. Some, including ‘Ralph’, the Burmese python, had played a role in the development of the business in various ways and had influenced the personal and professional development of many people associated with the Australian Reptile Park. During the heroic but futile battle to bring the blaze under control, fire-fighters miraculously were able to save ‘Miss Piggy’ the pig-nosed turtle and a female alligator snapping turtle thereafter nicknamed ‘Terminator’ after she somehow managed to plow her way through the embers and free of the collapsing building in the early hours of Sunday morning – bringing a relatively small measure of relief to the many Park personnel gathered in the car park, away from the inferno. However, at the same time, the singularity of these rescues brought to focus the devastating extent of the loss. By sunrise several hundred people – including more than thirty staff members – some with their families, many dozens of volunteers and former employees, and many other staunch supporters, had assembled in the car park. The tears were to continue through the day.
The option of not rebuilding was never considered, and within hours a makeshift command centre was established in the back of the Directors’ station wagon in the car park. A day later, a relocatable office compound was set up within the Park grounds and plans were quickly advanced to get the Australian Reptile Park back on its feet.
From the onset, the Gosford City council helped in every possible way, while building firm Raybal – which had initially built the Reptile Park in 1995-96, took a leadership role and dedicated its resources and determination to the enormous task ahead.
Stage 1: Keep the venom flowing
Immediately after the fire there was an urgent need to some how reinstate the Australian Reptile Park’s venom production operations in order to avoid a life-threatening shortfall of anti-venom supplies in hospitals Australia-wide. The Wyoming Veterinary Clinic generously assisted in providing laboratory space and equipment in order to kick-start for the funnel-web spider venom program. The NSW State Government graciously provided a modular building structure to facilitate the snake venom program, and CSL Limited – the producers of Australia’s only snake anti-venoms, provided critical financial and logistical support. Many trained people Australia-wide assisted in the collection of approximately 200 venomous snakes as required, and local residents did what they could to provide the male funnel-web spiders required to re-start the program. Through the assistance of these parties, and many others, a potentially serious health calamity was averted.
Stage 2: Re-open ASAP
Although the reopening of the Australian Reptile Park in an abbreviated format was an outstanding achievement, the real work had just begun. As soon as the damaged main building was completed in late August, a talented group of designers, sculptors, artists and trades-people were added to the re-development team. The concept for the new reptile display area within represented a big departure from traditional zoo-design thinking, and would inevitably be viewed as a bit ‘out there’. The ground-breaking ‘Lost World of Reptiles’ bravely sought to do what possibly no zoo had done before – to provide an educational experience that was wrapped in adventure, fun, and above all, a good laugh.
Reconstruction of the main building began as soon as the rubble could be removed, and work on the Lost World of Reptiles was completed on schedule, in time for Christmas, five short months post-fire. As a result of the development, the Australian Reptile Park won the prestigious NSW Tourism Award in 2001 for Best Tourism Development.
Stage 4: Spider World
The final stage of redevelopment would take more than a year to complete, and definitely broke new ground in the way zoos exhibit wildlife.
Spider World’s theme humorously looks at the Aussie tradition of spider loathing. Set in the quintessential Australian backyard, and viewed from a “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” perspective, high-tech interactive exhibits and giant three-metre high animated spiders spoof spider paranoia. From the send-up of Spiderman, to the recreation of an outdoor dunny (infested with ridiculously over-sized red-back spiders and a background musical rendition of Slim Dusty’s classic Red-back on the Toilet Seat) … Spider World is seriously funny.
The redevelopment was symbolically completed with the ‘Grand Re-opening’ on 8 April, 2002, compèred by the NSW Minister for Tourism, Sandra Nori. The reconstructed facilities complement the many exciting and innovative outdoor features that were not destroyed. Although the lasting impact of the fire can never be regarded as other than deeply tragic, the Australian Reptile Park emerged as a stronger and more significant tourism feature for the region. The high quality of the redevelopment and the remarkable promotional bonanza that successfully launched it yielded record crowds that appear to be a permanent feature, demonstrating that the Australian Reptile Park has truly ‘risen from the ashes’.