In a long-abandoned wildlife park in southern Australia, there’s an enormous tank filled with a murky green substance. This liquid is known as formaldehyde, and in large doses it’s said to be carcinogenic. But that’s not the reason why the tank has taken the internet by storm. Instead, it’s what’s lurking within the formaldehyde that’s proven so compelling.
Once upon a time, the Wildlife Wonderland Giant Earthworm Museum in Melbourne, Australia, pulled in hundreds of thousands of visitors per year. In 2012, though, the animal park closed down forever. And while nearly all of the attraction’s inhabitants were ultimately recovered and rehoused, a single eerie relic was left behind. Then, six years later, a YouTuber discovered the last vestige of the park for himself. But what exactly did the adventurer unearth?
Well, Wildlife Wonderland – which is situated near to Westernport Bay – was originally opened in 1985 by a real estate professional named John Matthews. Along with its giant worm display, the park hosted areas for koalas and wombats, a café and a restaurant. And the exhibits were popular. In fact, around 350,000 visitors flocked to the tourist attraction annually.
After the park became a success, though, Matthews sought to sell it on. And that’s exactly what he did, handing Wildlife Wonderland over to a group of Chinese investors at the turn of the millennium. The facility would also go on to change owners once again before being shuttered altogether.
Ultimately, Australia’s Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) sounded the death knell for Wildlife Wonderland. According to the DSE, you see, the owners had evicted the park’s operator for attempting to run it without the necessary license. And as a consequence, Wildlife Wonderland was forced to close for good in February 2012.
It’s said, though, that the DSE gave the operator plenty of opportunity to get the required license. And in 2012 department employee Ryan Incoll spoke to Australia’s ABC News about the matter, saying, “There were also a number of visits of our wildlife officers to the park to talk to the operator [and] to assist with getting that license. But he wasn’t in the place and didn’t obtain a license.”
In addition to those administrative issues, Wildlife Wonderland was also plagued in its later years by allegations of staff mistreating animals. At the time of the park’s closure, then, the DSE was apparently investigating these reports. The 130 animals living in the facility, meanwhile, were transferred with the help of the RSPCA to Healesville Sanctuary – a zoo in rural Victoria that specializes in native wildlife.
Today, the entire complex lies abandoned, although it hasn’t been totally devoid of visitors in the years since it shut. Haunting images of the decaying park have frequently circulated online, in fact. And there are clear signs of squatters having set up in the bones of what was Wildlife Wonderland, too.
Then, in 2018 urban explorer Luke McPherson ventured into the park, where he filmed his journey through the abandoned rooms and exhibits. And in the nearly 29-minute video, it’s clear to see just how decrepit the one-time tourist attraction has become. Dirt and dust have settled on almost every inch of the complex, in fact, with much having since fallen into disrepair.
Even the entrance to the facility has become unkempt, with outdoor ponds resembling something closer to swamps. And in the clip, McPherson approaches one of the buildings on the property only to be greeted by the sight of a dilapidated porch. There, a sign points to the long-defunct wombat habitat, while debris litters decking that is surrounded by damaged fencing.
McPherson then continues into the first room, which – according to a lopsided notice – was once a nursery for young orphaned wombats. But while a fur-like material continues to line the ceiling, the rocky walls are now covered in graffiti and lazy scrawls. And while it’s altogether a sorry sight, it’s still easy to imagine the area having once been a healthy home for the animals.
Then, as McPherson and his companion delve deeper into the complex, they come across several more remnants of the old park. Photographs of its one-time inhabitants still line the walls of the enclosures, along with accompanying information for visitors. And the rocks circling the enclosures could at one point have been stood on by curious kids angling for a better view of the animals.
The buildings that previously housed animals aren’t the only parts of the park that have fallen into disarray, however. As McPherson and his friend continue their tour through the complex, they come across a number of rooms that may once have contained offices, or perhaps living facilities. It’s difficult to determine from the footage, as each room is a shabby, disorderly shadow of what it may once have been.
Furniture – from desks and shelving units to couches and wardrobes – also lies strewn around many of these spaces. According to McPherson, though, the current inhabitants of the fixtures are possums who appear to have made themselves at home in the facility. But they may not be the only ones, as the large number of mattresses scattered throughout the abandoned sanctuary suggest.
Yes, there are hints of squatters having taken up residence in the abandoned park. In one room, McPherson finds discarded food packaging with a date of January 2017, while a fridge elsewhere turns up milk emblazoned with the month of April 2016. So, while the urban explorers don’t actually come across anyone living in the park during their visit, it seems that people may have done so in the past.
But from there, things start to get a little creepier. In another room, McPherson stumbles upon a trove of discarded children’s clothes as well as a buggy, a hairbrush and toys. A magazine among the piles of items suggests that they were left in 2015 – three years after the park closed. Perhaps, then, a family were here at one point.
Yet that’s not even the strangest thing the duo inadvertently discover during their tour of the facility. Seemingly unbeknownst to them, McPherson and his companion will ultimately venture into an area that hosts Wildlife Wonderland’s only remaining attraction. And it’s this part of their video that has subsequently captured the attention of a global audience.
Thanks to this incredible discovery, McPherson’s video has been widely shared across the web. In total, it’s racked up more than 14 million views and tens of thousands of comments since it was first uploaded. And going viral has only helped to draw more attention to the abandoned, once-forgotten animal park.
Among those comments were many shocked reactions – with a number expressing astonishment at what McPherson and his buddy eventually ended up finding. That said, the rest of the video also elicited some surprise from viewers. One person wrote, for example, “[The park] closed, and [the people] literally just dropped everything and left. I can’t believe there was still food in the fridge and old family pictures.”
But while most abandoned attractions are at least a little creepy, there’s something particularly sinister awaiting the trespassing filmmakers. Indeed, when the duo first set foot on the property, they probably didn’t expect to stumble across one of nature’s greatest predators. Yet that’s exactly what they find as they enter one room.
In the video, as the camera pans around, we see signs on the wall referring to “a mouthful of teeth” and “the Phillip Island giant.” Then, McPherson shifts his gaze upwards and exclaims loudly, “What the hell? Can you guys see that?” Yes, floating in a tank of green liquid is a great white shark. And while the beast isn’t alive, its spine-chilling silhouette is still enough to strike fear into anyone’s heart.
Then, after seeing McPherson’s YouTube clip, Don Kransky headed to the abandoned wildlife park to see the shark for himself. And armed with “painfully expensive gas-vapor respirators” to protect himself and his friend from the formaldehyde, he immediately found what he was looking for. “It was initially hard to make out the shark,” Kransky wrote for Vice in 2019. “But we let our eyes adjust, and its shape emerged, silhouetted by light pouring through a hole in the roof.”
And, as it happens, the formaldehyde hadn’t always been green; instead, it had turned that way as a result of damage to the tank. “It’s a big, murky tank because the filters haven’t been running,” one visitor to the center told the Phillip Island & San Remo Advertiser in 2019. “You couldn’t get into the shark, though, because the glass is two inches thick… There are [also] formaldehyde vapors coming out of the Perspex lid. It’s an eyesore.”
Yes, the attraction had unfortunately fallen into disrepair. In 2019 McPherson said to the Seven Network, “The tank was huge and in bad condition, with a rusting metal frame and smashed panels of glass and trash thrown inside.” As a result, he could only linger in the room for a minute or so before the noxious odor from the formaldehyde fumes became too much.
Yet the shark – which has since been dubbed Rosie – wasn’t originally intended to be gazed at by tourists. Instead, the more than 15-foot great white had simply eaten her way into a pen of tuna in 1997, and so she’d had to be put down to protect the divers operating there. In 2019 local historian Eric Kotz told the Port Lincoln Times, “The argument to kill [Rosie] was that five divers and several other companies working in the area were at risk.”
Rosie was then stored in a freezer by the Lukin family, who owned the fishing nets in which she’d been caught. And shortly after, ecotourism complex Seal Rocks Sea Life Centre – now known as the Nobbies Centre – expressed interest in purchasing the shark for display. Ultimately, though, the owners decided that they didn’t want to take possession of the animal, leaving Wildlife Wonderland to step in.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, transporting the more than two-ton creature to Bass proved problematic for the owners of the animal park. The endeavor was a huge logistical undertaking, in fact, necessitating the construction of an enormous steel frame to be placed inside a freezer truck. Then, when the shark arrived at the state border, the South Australian government impounded the vehicle.
According to Wildlife Wonderland employee Max Bryant, Rosie was confiscated owing to an ongoing missing persons case. “A woman had gone missing on a beach, and they thought she may be in the shark,” he said to the Phillip Island & San Remo Advertiser. “So, the shark was taken to the South Australian Museum where it was thawed and dissected. But the woman wasn’t found in it.”
When the investigation of Rosie had concluded, though, she wasn’t put on ice again but inside a tank that had been created specifically for her. After that, she was cured in formaldehyde over a few months. And through this period of time, Rosie’s stomach started to become misshapen, meaning she ultimately had to be packed with polyester fiber. All in all, then, bringing the shark to Wildlife Wonderland cost the park around $500,000.
The operation didn’t end when Rosie arrived at the animal park, however. The owners had to construct a new room for the shark, for one, before taking out the roof and using a crane to drop her in. A concrete bunker also had to be installed underneath the building to account for any potential formaldehyde leakages, while the tank itself required perpetual filtering and monitoring.
Yet all of the time, effort and expense that had gone into bringing Rosie to Wildlife Wonderland seemed at first to have paid off. The park began exceeding its regular visitor numbers, you see, with people flocking specifically to see Rosie. During that time, she was the biggest shark ever to be preserved. And, naturally, she became the focal point for a full exhibit on great whites.
Over the years, then, Matthews has had plenty of calls asking him to revive the shark display. However, as it was a logistical nightmare to bring Rosie to the park in the first place, moving her again would be a “massive job,” as he put it to the Phillip Island & San Remo Advertiser. “It was a vibrant attraction, so I shudder every time I go past,” Matthews added. “I’ve never been back there since selling it.”
Not everyone has stayed away, though. In fact, in the wake of McPherson’s video, people reportedly started flocking to the site. Despite warnings from local police to stay away or risk trespassing charges, vandals nevertheless encroached on the property and attempted to smash Rosie’s tank. And while the interlopers didn’t succeed in breaking through the three-inch glass, they cracked it enough to release some of the dangerous carcinogen within.
Although formaldehyde is generally in the air that we breathe, it’s at extremely low levels. As such, it’s not really a danger to anyone except those already most susceptible to breathing difficulties. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, though, high levels of exposure to formaldehyde have been linked to lung and oral cancers.
Furthermore, contact with the substance can also result in conditions such as pneumonia and dermatitis. In enclosed or poorly ventilated areas, it can even kill through suffocation. Yet with all that in mind, in 2019 an EPA Victoria spokesperson told news.com.au that it was “aware of the shark and tank and [did] not consider them to be hazardous.”
Meanwhile, as word of Rosie began to spread, concerned campaigners set up a Facebook page dubbed “Save Rosie the Shark.” And the ploy seemed to work. In February 2019 it was reported that Wildlife Wonderland’s owners had arranged for the animal to be taken to Crystal World – a nearby center housing the world’s largest collection of crystals, gems and minerals.
Crystal World is now adding Rosie to its Prehistoric Journeys Exhibition Centre, following an extensive restoration process to her damaged tank. That move was set in motion after Sharon Williamson, an employee at Crystal World, spotted the ferocious creature on her Facebook page. And not long after, she began campaigning for her workplace’s owner to save the shark.
“Otherwise, [Rosie] was going to go to landfill,” Williamson told the Herald Sun in 2019. “It was quite logistical, getting it out here and the emptying it.” According to Crystal World director Tom Kapitany, Rosie was in surprisingly good condition, too – especially considering the fact that she’d been abandoned for years. And, now, the center is attempting to preserve the shark in glycerin for centuries to come.
“I told my staff, ‘Go and save her. I don’t care what it costs; just save her,’” Kapitany told the Port Lincoln Times. “I couldn’t see such a beautiful animal, dead or alive, destroyed.” It seems, then, that the Facebook page did the job, according to its founder Trent Hooper. In 2019 he told the Daily Mail, “It’s such a great outcome. Australia rallied together to save Rosie and get her a forever home at Crystal World.”
For Kapitany, meanwhile, saving the great white shark was about preserving her past. That includes the damage her tank suffered from vandals at Wildlife Wonderland, which will be left untouched. So, after years of languishing in an abandoned park, Rosie will finally go on display once again, with no charge to visitors. And any money raised from merchandise sales is set to be donated towards shark conservation and study – a fitting continuation of this creature’s incredible story.