Select a Zoo



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. Hellabrunn masterplanv1The 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). Rhino house indoors at Tierpark HellabrunnThe 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 Linné’s two-​toed sloth. Around the Rhino House all species have access to out­door enclo­sures with down­wards slop­ing grounds to the wall at the visitor’s side. Rhino house outdoorsNei­ther 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 video) that were born 9 Decem­ber 2013 and close to being moved to another zoo (more infor­ma­tion on the Hellabrun polar bears here). 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 ostrich. 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 feeding system wild dogs. 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 video). 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. Amur tiger enclosureThe 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 cats cages and arcade. 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 lion peninsula. 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.

elephant house renovationThe 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.

orangutan outdoorsThe 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 here).

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 gorilla outdoors. 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!

Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map

Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.


about zoos and their mis­sion regard­ing breed­ing endan­gered species, nature con­ser­va­tion, bio­di­ver­sity and edu­ca­tion, which of course relates to the evo­lu­tion of species.
Fol­low me on: