The origin of the name of the City of Bern is uncertain. Many people believe that Bern means bears. Local legend has it that Berthold V (1168-1218), Duke of Zähringen and the founder of the city, vowed to name the city after the first animal he met on the hunt. As this turned out to be a bear, the city acquired its name and its coat of arms with this heraldic beast. On the other hand it has long been considered likely that the city was named after the Italian city of Verona, which at the time was known as Bern in Middle High German.
But a legend is always more intriguing, so the connection with bears was made and . At the time they were smaller and had only a single dead tree in the middle, while the picture shows a completely renovated pit. The bear pit was completely renovated from 1994 to 1996 to improve conditions for the bears, but still it remained a pit. Therefore, today, the brown bears are kept in the adjacent Bear Park – the large uphill bear enclosure on the river bank. Both the bear pit and the Bear Park are now run and maintained by Bern Zoo.. Up until 1857 they were in the city itself, then in the bear pit and, from 2009, in the Bear Park. The early bear pits in the city had to move because of increasing traffic. The current bear pit, at the Nydeggbrücke (Nydegg bridge) near the riverside, is the fourth enclosure in the city since bears were held in a pit. It was opened on May 27, 1857. About a dozen bears lived in these historic bear pits which do not resemble the one in the picture
The first plan for a zoo with predominantly European species in the city of Bern was developed in 1871 by a group of opportunistic enthusiasts who founded a Society for Acclimatisation. Two years later, their plan was dropped for a lack of shareholders. Nonetheless a park for deer and European bison was created on the slope below the Bierhübeli (Beer Hill) a well-known public house in Bern at the time, and nowadays a concert hall.
As the park did not meet the expectations, new locations were sought - among others in Dählhölzli. They even thought of abandoning the focus on native species and create a zoo with exotic animals. All attempts failed, however, for various reasons but one of them was a lack of funds. Thanks to William Gabus (1847-1901), the financing issue could be resolved. The well-to-do watchmaker left CHF 150,000 to the city of Bern for the construction of a zoological park, "if possible in Dählhölzli," according the testament.
In 1918, the City was able to acquire the Elfenau park on the southern outskirts of Bern. During the following years this site became the prime area for developing a zoological garden. However, progress was slow. Only when in 1930 the Zoo Society Bern was founded, which already had more than 1800 members two years later, things started to move. With a lot of enthusiasm and without compromise already in 1933 the Society was able to submit a draft plan for building a zoo, while preserving the beautiful landscape of the Elfenau. Nevertheless, the local community who wanted to leave the Elfenau untouched, protested against the plan. A change of location was suggested and in March 1935 the new plan was accepted by the Bern citizens in a referendum. The new Zoo was to be developed in the Dählhölzli woods close to the river Aare.
On 5 June 1937 the Zoo was opened to the public. After being led for a year by veterinarian Dr. Paul Badertscher, the young zoologist Dr. Heini Hediger was appointed director in 1938. Hediger soon became famous as an expert in animal psychology and animal husbandry. In his book ‘Wild Animals in Captivity, an Outline of the Biology of Zoological Gardens,’ he relied to a great extent on his experiences in Bern Zoo, now called Tierpark Dählhölzli. Hediger steered the Zoo through the difficult pre-war time with its shortages of both food and animals. Already during WWII, however, Hediger left, first to head Basel and subsequently Zurich Zoo.
Hediger’s successor in 1943, Dr. Monika Meyer-Holzapfel, whose expertise in endangered and locally extinct fauna suited the Zoo’s mission, was in charge when many important milestones were achieved. Besides the increase of the animal collection and subsequently the number of enclosures, the breeding successes attracted the interest of the professionals in the world of zoos. Nowadays breeding of many species in zoos is routine, but in those days successful breeding of otters, wildcats, lynxes, European bisons, wolves, kestrels, black grouse, and wood grouse was rare. In fact, of most mentioned species individuals were successfully released in the wild which made it even more exceptional. Furthermore, much progress was achieved in the nourishment of species that were notorious difficult to keep in captivity, such as reindeer, roe deer and elk. All this was done with only seven keepers who cared for 1675 animals from 335 species, of which 23 species were mammalian.
The zoo entered a period of extension in the mid 1970s. Large paddocks were built for herds of Przewalsky horses (which were bred very successfully), backcrossed ‘aurochs’, reindeer, and musk ox. A carnivore house for small native predators was constructed, while marmots, beavers, and even seals arrived. As part of the Zoo’s conservation activities endangered species, such as sika deer, Syrian brown bears, Persian leopards, maned wolves, and Amur tigers were purchased, although these did not fit into the Zoo’s focus on European indigenous species. The number of mammal species increased to 60 which included the most comprehensive collection of European fauna.
Already from the beginning parts of the Zoo were accessible for free, while an admission fee was charged for the Vivarium section. In the 1980s the Vivarium, had to undergo urgent renovations. An extensive refurbishment programme of CHF 12 million was started. New environmental friendly technology was used modernising the Vivarium, while a large glass hall was added with open top terrariums embedded in a tropical setting. Additionally, a seal pool was constructed, and mixed-species aviaries were designed. In support of the change in attitude of zoological gardens regarding their function the first Swiss zoo education centre was established.
Further improvement of the enclosures materialised in the 1990s when all the outdoor enclosures were designed according the latest standards to match the needs and enrich the lives of the animals. A new children's zoo, where kids could learn how to interact with animals, was opened in 1995. The aquatic bird collection was reduced to European avifauna including European flamingo and Dalmatian pelicans. Though on the other hand there was a trend to introduce more exotic mammals – such as wallaby, capybara and Malagasay species.
Together with a reduction in the number of species and the establishment of animal-friendly habitats, a new mission statement was introduced to mark a new era for keeping animals in captivity:
"More space for less animals" - For the welfare of animals and the pleasure of people!
(Source: Encyclopedia of the World’s Zoos, Ed. Catharine E. Bell, 2001; website Tierpark Bern; Wikipedia)