It’s a beautiful winter’s day with a clear blue sky and the temperature is approaching 10°C at noon. A short walk from the U3 metro line Thalkirchen station crossing the river Isar brings me to the Isar entrance – one of the two entrances of Tierpark Hellabrunn. The Isar entrance is a surprisingly simple entrance – no flashy, money wasting design – with the walking routes starting directly from the cashier’s desk, to the left along the zoo shop and to the right along the restaurant. The latter is closed during winter, so I miss out on my coffee with which I always like to start a zoo visit.
A first glance at the zoo map, that comes with the entrance ticket, doesn’t show a specific grouping of the animal collection. This is rather strange, because when Tierpark Hellabrunn opened its gates to the public in 1911 it was the first zoo worldwide that had its animals grouped according to their respective geographical origin. But my first impression of the current display of animals is supported by the Zoo itself. On the website it reads that the original geo-zoo concept – as they call it – was partially given up in the last decades. The current Masterplan, therefore, includes an objective to pursue a consequent continental grouping of the animal collection according the geographical concept. A first big step to achieve this novel geo-zoo of the future was taken with the opening of the 10,000 square metres African giraffe savannah in May 2013. Giraffes, meerkats and porcupines now live together in this new Africa area near the Isar entrance.
I expect that more of this specific idea in the Masterplan will be revealed while exploring the grounds. Although the first enclosure doesn’t fit into the plan, because straight ahead from the entrance there’s a large paddock with many trees that houses Persian fallow deer (Dama dama mesopotamica) in the European section. It will not come as a surprise when I tell you that this Endangered subspecies of fallow deer is foreign to Europe.
Following the broad footpath around the large paddock another large enclosure appears on the right with Abruzzo chamois (Rupicapra pyrenaica ornata), a European species indeed. The chamois and the alpine marmot with whom they share the exhibit, have access to a nice undulating grassy meadow with trees, rocks and a wooden shelter – with a bit of imagination they might think it’s an alpine pasture in the Apennines in Italy. The grounds are sloping down to a wall of concrete slabs at the visitor’s side.
Further along the path a pelican pond has great white pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus) on display. These pelican do have parts of their breeding grounds in swamps and shallow lakes in southeastern Europe, but mainly in Asia and Africa though. Nevertheless, they fit in the European part of the collection. Across from the pelicans there’s a brown bear enclosure with a single female that recently has gone into hibernation in her den. A form of natural behaviour she has expressed every year now, and she will appear in spring again according the information provided. The bear enclosure is a two part peninsula of a small but respectable size with a variety of vegetation and a few dead tree trunks for the bear to climb. The multilevel grounds of the peninsula are surrounded by a water-filled moat with the typical concrete slabs they have used as a wall.
The alpine ibex (Capra ibex) is another representative of European species. It occupies an exhibit that simulates a mountainous area with boulders. The European section ends with the elk, while its neighbour the markhor (Capra falconeri) – a goat species from the Himalayas – in a large exhibit with boulders and good climbing opportunities should be considered as part of the Asian section that starts more or less at the Café Rhino and its children’s playground. The Café Rhino is situated at the edge of the Zoo grounds along the Isar.
In a large enclosure along the Isar, next door to the Rhino Café, the first mixed-species exhibit appears with axis deer, nilgai and blackbuck – all Asian species. Opposite this exhibit the Rhino House comprises Indian rhino, Malayan tapir and bearded pig (Sus barbatus). The building has a peculiar futuristic design. It has an elliptic form and consists of two curved walls with metal plates on the outside and cement on the inside. Over the entire length, these two walls are connected at the highest point by a light-transmitting connection that provides sufficient natural light. There are two strange things I observe inside the building, the many small interconnected enclosures for these large mammals and the free roaming . Around the Rhino House all species have access to outdoor enclosures with downwards sloping grounds to the wall at the visitor’s side. Neither of these enclosures are very large nor very attractive in my opinion, being straightforward paddocks without much enrichment, but they offer me a view on the Indian rhino mother and her three month old calf that was born on 31 August.
Except for the bear, the marmots and the sloth it was all ungulates that I have seen up till now, so I push on along the children’s petting farm to the far end corner near the Isar where the Polar World section is situated. In the elongated Polarium where they simulate arctic conditions, including white coloured floors and walls, king penguin, gentoo penguin and northern rockhopper penguin are on display. There’s an arcade along the length of the enclosure that prevents somewhat the mirroring effect of the window panes, which is one of the annoying effects of such windows. The other one is that they are easily fogged up when outdoor temperatures drop. This I experience at the polar bear exhibit where it’s hard to get sight of the bears due to the foggy windows. So, during periods of cold weather this prevents too much exposure of the animals, but I wonder if the enclosures otherwise provide good shelters for the animals from the inquisitive eyes of the public. The extremely large enclosure, with a rock face rear wall and a pool near the viewing windows is at least 150 meters in length and consists of two parts. The male bear is housed separate from the female with the playful twins (see ) that were born 9 December 2013 and close to being moved to another zoo (more information on the Hellabrun polar bears ). The last and final enclosure I have a look at in the Polar World section will never win a prize in a design contest. The pools for the South American sea lion and the California sea lion are large and functional, but the rectangular and hexagonal concrete constructions do not please the eye, to put it mildly. Most important of course is whether or not the sea lions’ welfare is impaired. Which is by definition, I would say, because all enclosures are unfit to hold wild animals. But an ugly design is not worse than more aesthetically pleasing designs as long as it provides the possibilities for the animals to express natural behaviour. Taking into account that we accept the compromises made and are convinced that we save species from going extinct this way.
From the Polar World corner away from the Isar the next section covers African species. The first exhibit is a large savannah area, I do not need to remind you of the giraffe savannah close to the Isar entrance that was opened in May 2013 to explain that Munich Zoo has still a long way to go to create one single Africa section again. This savannah of mostly sandy substrate next to many (huge) trees and a few ponds is surrounded by a walled outer rim . It houses ostriches and small herds of Hartmann’s mountain zebra and greater kudu, all of which brave the cold temperatures of the outdoors.
Between the savannah area and the outer edge of the Zoo grounds an old-fashioned large baboon rock is situated as well as a rather small and very exposed enclosure for African wild dog. There’s a feeding enrichment system in place that probably drags pieces of meat along the edge of the exhibit . Unfortunately, no feeding takes place and no dogs are seen.
On the same side of the footpath as the savannah, thus across from the African wild dogs, an interesting mix of species of dama gazelle, marabou stork and blue crane (Anthropoides paradiseus) is kept in a large paddock. The dama gazelle (Nanger dama) or mhorr gazelle seem at ease in this enclosure, because they show their typical pronking behaviour (see ). This behaviour of quadrupeds, particularly gazelles, involves the animal hopping up and down with all four of their legs stiff, so their limbs all leave and touch the ground at the same time. Many explanations of pronking have been proposed, but there is evidence that at least in some cases it is a signal to predators that the pronking animal is not worth pursuing. Not sure where this gazelle see what kind of predator, but at least they show natural behaviour.
In the centre of the triangular Zoo grounds there’s work to be done improving some of the predator exhibits. It’s obviously a part of the Zoo where the geographical concept has been given up years ago, and where the new Masterplan will lead to major adjustments. The Amur tiger exhibit is not spectacular and the two specimens are very exposed in this open exhibit with large trees, which are not protected from the big cats’ scratching behaviour. It’s almost impossible for the cats to hide from the public and the one shelter available is in plain sight of the public near the water-filled moat.
Behind the Amur tiger enclosure there are several old-fashioned predator cages which are a relic of the past I would say, and it seems they are not used any more. On one side there’s a wooden arcade that provides shelter from bad weather for the public, while it creates semi-indoor facilities for the predators. On the other side of these building the steel-frame wire mesh fences establish outdoor enclosures with a minimum of enrichment . The other predator exhibits for lynx, arctic fox, puma and wolverine, in this area vary in design and construction. From open top to wire mesh roof, from simply a fenced off area with trees to a large cage or to large enriched areas with boulders and high level platforms – or as you can put it from old-fashioned to a more modern design. At this part of the Zoo the bar-less principle of Hagenbeck has not arrived yet, and also some species do not have an enclosure that mimics their natural habitat. This counts for the arctic fox, but especially for the snow leopard whose grassy compound of its open top enclosure with a few rocky shelters, absolutely doesn’t look like the cat’s original mountainous habitat.
When walking towards the Elephant House one of the most popular and adorable fluffy predators is housed here at Hellabrunn. There are two red panda enclosures close to the Turtle House that are designed as most red panda enclosures nowadays – circular with several shelters and a large tree in the centre. A more majestic predator is the red panda’s neighbour, the African lion, represented by two males. The lions’ outdoor enclosure is an unjustified small peninsula surrounded by a large water-filled moat. Although designed according the modern concept of moated exhibits this one neither suits the lions nor the Zoo’s philosophy to create enclosures according modern standards. The size of the lion enclosure and the lack of hiding places will hopefully be addressed and changed when to the execution of the current Masterplan progresses . The lions as well as the next door Chinese leopard (Panthera pardus japonensis) are part of the Jungle World area and its eye-catching building. The Chinese leopard outdoor enclosure is small too, but it has got many enrichment features, such as a small pond, a high level platform and a variety of vegetation. Both these big cats’ indoor enclosures are incorporated in the Jungle World building. Another cat that is part of the Jungle World collection is the fishing cat. The two specimens are kept separate, which is not unlike how these cats live in the wild, and have access to an indoor and outdoor exhibit. Especially outdoors the cats will find a habitat that resembles their native environment, except for the temperatures 😉, with lots of vegetation, a pool, boulders, trees and shrubs. Apart from the cats the indoors, which is hot and humid, comprises free flying bird species from all rainforest habitats worldwide. Unfortunately, there’s a lot to hear, but little to see.
The Elephant House is being renovated, therefore, the building is closed, while lookout points and good views of the outdoor arena are limited. Not only because of the work in progress, but also because there are only a few viewing points around the perimeter of the exhibit – with most parts being blocked by vegetation, mainly bamboo. What I see, besides Asian elephants, are Asian ornamental features and elephants that can get quite close to the edge of the enclosure.
The small Australian section, opposite the Elephant House, comprises swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor), common emu and black swan in a mixed-species exhibit. It’s small but interesting as an enclosure, with lots of water available for the pinioned swans. The other species on display in separate enclosures are red kangaroo, agile wallaby (Macropus agilis) and budgerigars. This is a section that a zoo like Tierpark Hellabrunn, that advertises itself as a geo-zoo, can do without when such species as mentioned above are kept. Because all these species’ conservation statuses are classified as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Moreover, the size of their populations are considered stable or even increasing. I believe there must be a real threat to a species’ survival before considering to keep – and trying to breed – them in captivity. Zoos and other protected environments must be the last resort, the place for educating people about the conservation status of the threatened species, and hopefully the place from which captive bred specimens will be returned to the wild.
Opposite the agile wallaby the large primate section begins, which includes the Aquarium and is situated near the Zoo’s other entrance, called the Flamingo entrance. This name leaves nothing to anyone’s imagination of course, and indeed has got a flamingo pond starting just a few steps from the gate. Straight across from the wallaby enclosure and neighbouring the Elephant House, Monkey World has an island surrounded by water with siamang. Unfortunately, these gibbon species do not have very large trees at their disposal to brachiate through the tree tops as they would do in the rainforest canopy in the wild. There are three primate islands, the other two inhabited by brown-headed spider monkeys (Ateles fusciceps) and moloch gibbon (Hylobates moloch). The siamang indoor enclosure has got tiled walls and a partially tiled floor for easy cleaning and lots of artificial enrichment features, such as ropes, hammocks, tree trunks, while part of the floor has a woodchip substrate. In fact all the indoor primate enclosures (common squirrel monkey, cotton-top tamarin, red-ruffed lemur and ring-tailed lemur) have a similar design, although sometimes the floor is coated instead of tiled, while especially the tamarin have a lot of natural vegetation at their disposal.
The Sumatran orangutan outdoor exhibit has a typical appearance due to the construction which uses metal discs to support the wire mesh roof. The six orangutans, of which the youngest was born in 2009 here at Hellabrunn, do not have a lot of vegetation in their grassy outdoor exhibit, but plenty of ropes and hammocks. Inside the Monkey World house their orangutan paradise is large but it has unattractive coated concrete floors. The inevitable wood shavings provide enrichment as do the puzzle boxes with tennis balls. It’s a rather clean and sterile environment with good viewing opportunities for the visitors. Inside the orangutan paradise, the mandrill and drill are on display as well, in small troops in small enclosures. Hellabrunn is coordinator of the drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus) international and European breeding programmes. Inside the house there’s a good education centre about the cause and effect of climate change, which is presented in the German language as well as in English (more on signage and information ).
In the other building of the primate section, the Jungle Pavilion, the indoor enclosures for the six gorillas and six chimpanzees have a similar design as their outdoor enclosures, but smaller of course. Both outside and inside exhibits have slightly uneven natural soil with grass, rocks, boulders, ropes, natural trees outside and tree trunks inside for enrichment, and a rock face rear wall. The indoor enclosure has puzzle boxes, hammocks and elevated platforms for additional enrichment, while outdoors a small stream completes the replica of an African habitat . A separate enclosure holds two young male gorillas, Tano und Okanda, born in 2011 at Prague Zoo and Twycross Zoo respectively. Tano was rejected by his mother while Okanda’s mother didn’t produce enough milk. For this reason they were welcomed to be hand-raised at Stuttgart Zoo ‘Wilhelma’. In spring 2015 they were transferred to Hellabrunn and are now slowly getting used to the new environment, to be introduced to – and hopefully accepted by – the gorilla troop in Munich.
Both buildings in the primate section comprise a mix of species from different geographical origin. In the Monkey World houses primate species from Asia, Africa (including Madagascar) and South America are on display, while the Jungle Pavilion with the chimps and gorillas from Africa is connected to the Aquarium with fish and reptile species from South America in a beautiful setting with nice vivaria.
When outside again it is already getting dark, so I make my way to the exit after a brief visit to the mixed-species pampa which constitute the Zoo’s South America section with giant anteater, mara, vicuña and nandu. Along the footpath to the Isar entrance/exit I pass the giraffe savannah that is in use since May 2013 and is part of the huge Masterplan which I mentioned earlier. The large sandy paddock is bordered by a pool and a line of trees, while providing an environment where giraffes, meerkats and porcupines live together.
Tierpark Hellabrunn, Munich Zoo, set a new visitor’s record in 2014 with almost 2,3 million people. Never before in the Zoo’s history so many people came to visit the grounds. The polar bear twins were a massive hit with the public, and the weather was regarded zoo-friendly all year long. When they are capable of getting across the right message about the importance of nature and species conservation, biodiversity and cause and effect of climate change with at least 10% of these visitors the Zoo has real value as an educational institution in my opinion.
The Zoo is a green oasis within the City of Munich. This is partly due to the large volume of water available on the premises, some of it connected to the Isar, the river that flows through Munich and has its source in the Austrian Alps. Many of the large bar-less enclosures have water-filled moats, which makes Tierpark Hellabrunn an attractive place to visit I believe. Not only because of this feature I am looking forward to my next visit. When large parts of the Masterplan will be realised, the logic of the Zoo’s layout together with the new grouping of the animal collection will have increased its attraction, at least to me. The geo-zoo again at its fullest!