Bullen’s African Lion Safari Park history revived

Bullen's Lion Safari Park visitors could have their photos taken with lion cubs, with funds raised going towards the Lions Club of Wanneroo's projects. Picture: Wanneroo Regional Museum
Bullen's Lion Safari Park visitors could have their photos taken with lion cubs, with funds raised going towards the Lions Club of Wanneroo's projects. Picture: Wanneroo Regional Museum

LIONS that prowled the bush in Carabooda for almost two decades were a major tourist attraction, with carloads of people queuing to get in.

Wanneroo Regional Museum has gathered a collection of stories and photos from Bullens Lion Safari Park, later known as Wanneroo Lion Park, which operated from August 1971 until 1988. 

Museum assistant Jan Salvati said the museum had a couple of oral history recordings from people who used to work at the lion park, John and Fran Gilbertson, and Marion Colmer.

“People can come and listen to them, and we also have transcripts,” she said.   “They can also access them via the library catalogue.” 

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Mrs Salvati said circus veterans and brothers Ken and Stafford Bullen opened the park with partners TVW7 and Michael Edgley after Bullens Circus closed in 1969.

Former lion park manager John Gilbertson feeding a cub. PIcture: Wanneroo Regional Museum
Former lion park manager John Gilbertson feeding a cub. Picture: Wanneroo Regional Museum

On the opening day, traffic backed up for miles with visitors keen to drive inside the two lion compounds that initially held 32 lions and four cubs. 

“You were driving through the park in your car – the lions would come up close to the car,” she said.

“They would stretch up and put their paws on the car – you had to keep your windows up.”

To raise funds for the Lions Club of Wanneroo, people could have their photos taken with the lion cubs, and cubs born at the park used to appear on Telethon.

A third compound held a mix of other animals and Mrs Salvati said visitors were also treated to circus shows where cockatoos would perform and monkeys would ride on the backs of horses.

Though a popular attraction, controversial incidents at the lion park also made headlines.

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A lioness feeding. Picture: Wanneroo Regional Museum

“Two lions escaped their compound and got into the other animals’ compound and killed all the goats,” Mrs Salvati said. 

Kallaroo resident Judy Sears said her friend’s husband died after a close encounter with one of the lions in 1971, just a couple of months after the park opened.

“He took his kids up – he had an old Vauxhall,” she said.

“(A lion) put his claws on the top of the window and pushed it down (and) clawed his arm. He was taken to Royal Perth Hospital – that might have been on the Friday. He died on the Saturday because he was allergic to the anaesthetic.”

Mrs Salvati said the second man who died at the park was believed to have committed suicide in 1982.   “He got out of his car and walked into the middle of the pride of lions,” she said.

In 1981, the RSPCA investigated a welfare complaint and the park overhauled its care for the lions, then in 1988 it closed.

“It was the high public liability insurance – by that time it was just too dangerous, they just couldn’t afford the premiums,” Mrs Salvati said.

“In the end there was nowhere for the lions to go, they had to be shot – it’s not as if they could be released into the wild.”

Mrs Salvati said, like 1980s Atlantis Marine Park in Two Rocks, Bullens Lion Park was an icon of its era.

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Camels and other animals were kept in a separate compound at the lion park. Picture: Wanneroo Regional Museum