A dream came true for Willem Oosting on 30 May 1935 when ‘Noorder Dierenpark’ opened for the public in Emmen, a town in the province Drenthe. He went to great lengths to refurbish large parts of the garden of his parental home and turn it into a zoo. As a small boy he wanted to be director of Artis (Amsterdam Zoo), the oldest zoo in the Netherlands. When this appeared out of his reach when he grew up, he built a zoo himself, and ‘Noorder Dierenpark’ came into existence as a private company, a family business. The Zoo was a great success, even form its earliest days. So, within a few years the income generated from the paying visitors made it possible to expand the park, and adjacent land was bought. Oosting was influenced by Carl Hagenbeck, so he tried to introduce spacious bar-less enclosures with moats. Unfortunately he did not succeed while creating the wild carnivores enclosures, which were cramped cages paved with stones as bedding.
Unfortunately, World War II brought some hardships onto people, and inhabitants of the Zoo. Though Drenthe, a Northern province in the Netherlands, was spared the worst famine caused by the war, it became hard to feed the Zoo animals, obviously. Therefore, newly born camels and bisons were sometimes fattened and fed to the carnivores, like lions, tigers, wolves and hyenas.
Although not involved in the Resistance during the war, the Zoo was a perfect hide-out for people to escape from deportation and foreign employment by the Germans. So, the attic above the wild carnivores house was much used for this.
After the war the Zoo flourished and entertained lots of visitors, sometimes up to 250,000 per year, in spite of the fact it closed during the winter months and the Northern part of the Netherlands was sparsely populated. At the end of the 1960s there was a decrease in number of visitors. Due to for instance more competition and increased wealth followed by more holidays spent in foreign countries. This made it hard for the family, without governmental subsidies, to keep on track. In the end they even could not afford regular maintenance of the buildings. Willem Oosting became disillusioned and wanted to sell the Zoo, but he was sharing the ownership with his sister, who didn’t want to sell. As the town council saw the great benefit of the Zoo for economic prosperity of the region arrangements were made to sell Willem Oosting’s shares to the town council of Emmen. So, the Zoo became a dual ownership of Digna Gerritzen-Oosting, Willem’s sister, and the local government, which ensured the Zoo’s existence. While, the town of Emmen declared it would stand surety for any loans that would be necessary to keep the Zoo in business in the future. Perhaps more importantly Willem’s daughter Aleid and her husband followed in the footsteps of their father (-in-law).
The new directors took up the challenge, and in September 1970 started their new enterprise with reorganising the premises according their vision. Their main goal was education of the public and show them nature as close to reality as possible. This meant a huge change to the design of the Zoo, because until then the animals were housed and grouped species by species, with related species close together. The new park would be organised according a geographical lay-out, with an African, American, Asian and European region. And it should provide spacious enclosures for the animals, which required decisions what animals could stay and what animals should be moved elsewhere (other zoos). A grand opening was scheduled for 31 May 1971, and the new design proved to be great success.
Nevertheless, to follow up and expand this idea required additional financial support, because the economic growth in this part of the Netherlands was not properous. Again, governmental support could be mobilised, as there were possibilities for financial support of special projects on regional level. This led to a project that materialised in the Biochron (in 1985), a museum on the history of life on earth, where animals took part in the museological exhibitions. The geographical lay-out was finalised in 1995, and the park reached more or less its physical boundaries. To postpone this moment and to create a true to nature environment, quite some underground building has been executed, like the inside enclosure of the elephants. Nevertheless no more expansion is possible in the centre of Emmen, the Zoos’s current location.
Apart from this all, the tropical butterfly garden deserves special attention, because this superb and renowned enclosure has been the leading attraction for over 20 years now. Numerous specimens of more than 40 species of butterflies will flutter around your head after entering the enclosure.
Due to a major transformation of the town centre of Emmen, the Zoo gets the opportunity to rebuild on another site and introduce a whole new concept. This new park will not be just an ordinary zoo, but a variety of settings where people and animals will play a key role. The objective will be to provide people of all ages an unforgettable day. But, a day with a message! A message of balance between culture and nature, between man and environment … a message on a sustainable development of our priceless planet. The basis for the concept that was developed for this new zoological park consists of several ‘worlds’. Three worlds are dominated by a specific climate zone, which were four zones (‘tropical heat’, ‘wet and watery’, ‘hot and dry’ and ‘icy cold’, according the original master plan published in the International Zoo Yearbook (Landman and Visscher, 2009). There the public will not only meet the animals but also the cultures associated with these climate types. Another world is all about theatre, where theatre performances can be enjoyed in an environment that matches the theme of the park. The concept was adopted in 2008. In 2009 it was further developed and tested in every detail to guarantee a successful implementation, which apart from climate citeria also focused on sustainability and conservation. This should enable that in 2010 preparations for actual construction can start.
Unfortunately, in 2010 an evaluation ordered by the City Council of Emmen showed that financially the Zoo was not self-sustainable, and depended on ‘not-guaranteed’ financial support of third parties. A major reorganisation, including staff reduction, was inevitable to help the Zoo survive this period of ‘bad weather’. In October 2011 good news from the City Council (17 million Euros!) made it possible to further investigate the viability of the relocation of the zoo on the rim of the city centre. Other investors followed and in March 2012 the Council gave their consent to proceed with the master plan and relocate the Zoo, to be ready in 2015.
The new zoo, or better still amusement park, was opened to the public on 25 March 2016.
(Sources: ‘n Metamorfose, 60 jaar Noorder Dierenpark Emmen 1935 – 1995, ed. Hidding, de Koo, Landman and Rensen; Planning for a sustainable Emmen Zoo, Landman and Visscher in International Zoo Yearbook 2009; website Emmen Zoo; NRC)