Tallinn Zoo is the only large zoo in Estonia. Having gained independence after World War I, cultural and economic development became paramount in Estonia. This enabled the establishment of a zoological garden, which was founded just before WW II and was inaugurated on 25 August 1939 at the edge of Kadriorg Park.
It all started two years before, in 1937, when a team of Estonian marksmen had won the World Champion title in Helsinki. They not only won the victory cup, but another trophy as well — a young lynx named Illu. A cage for the young lynx was built in Kadriorg Park, which drew crowds of people as well as press. At the same time members of the public came forward with animals, so, pressure mounted on the authorities to create a proper zoological garden in Tallinn, a national zoo. The exhibit with the young lynx became the new zoo’s first enclosure and later the lynx was chosen as Tallinn Zoo’s symbol. A founding vision, that stressed cultural and educational functions in a large national zoological garden, was developed with support of the zoos in Riga and Helsinki. However, the development of the envisaged large facilities would require time and was considered not feasible in the light of the increasingly volatile situation in Europe, economically as well as politically. Therefore it was decided to build a small, temporary zoo at the edge of Kadriorg Park to create an animal collection around the lynx in its cage and gain experience. Later on a larger area was to be selected for the proper zoo to be established.
The main responsibility for the construction of the small zoo lay with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Department of Tourism and Nature Preservation. Initially the bureaucrats were assisted by Carl Heinrich Hagenbeck, grandson of Carl Hagenbeck the famous founder of Tierpark Hagenbeck and developer of the bar-less enclosures, but he soon fled the country together with his travelling animal circus to escape WW II. At the end of the year the zoological garden opened its gates to the public, in 1939, the animal collection comprised 90 specimens representing 48 species, including Illu the lynx.
Had Hagenbeck escaped WW II, Estonia and the Zoo were not so lucky. In 1940 Estonia together with the other independent Baltic countries were annexed by the Soviet Union, after which all societies and unions were banned. Tallinn Zoo came under the jurisdiction of Tallinn City government and has operated as a municipal institution ever since. The lynx was killed in a bombing raid and the Zoo’s polar bear was transferred to a German zoo.
The war had great effect on the original plans to build a large, national zoo. First the country needed to replace the buildings that had been lost. Hence, the development of the Zoo was of minor importance. Nonetheless, the collection grew to 500 specimens of 95 species in 1960, which enhanced its attractiveness to the general public that visited the amusement park that had been developed nearby. The Zoo director that was appointed in 1961, Karoly Stern, was very influential as he initiated improvement of the quality of the animal collection, including rare species that were of scientific interest, and he launched research in reproductive biology and behaviour. Last but not least he managed to extend the Zoo to a total of three hectares. During that period infamous governmental bureaucracy let pass momentum to translocate the collection and develop a brand new zoo, however, this allowed for a further quality boost to the original haphazard collection of animals. Via exchanges with other zoos Tallinn Zoo’s animal collection became more varied and therefore suitable for public education and more valuable for research. Acknowledged by the zoological society worldwide Tallinn Zoo became a respected member of many international zoo programmes, and still is.
Finally, in 1983, the small Zoo could move to a new area of about 88 hectares at the other side of town in Veskimetsa (Mill Forest) district. Old Soviet military storehouses on the grounds had to be adapted to temporary enclosures, because after the Olympic Games in Moscow (1980) a 10-year-long prohibition was announced on building cultural and sports structures, zoo facilities being one of them. But in the 1980s a strong independence movement established itself and when on 6 September 1991 the former Soviet Union recognised Estonia’s independence the future for Tallinn Zoo brightened. Appropriate enclosures could be developed, but to fully ‘shape’ the grounds required a lot of time and money. Money that was scarcely available with the Tallinn municipality. Therefore, initiatives were developed for additional funding, such as the establishment of The Friends of Tallinn Zoo, a biannual Baltic Animal Sculpture Festival and teaming up with the adjacent high-attendance amusement park, while also the first state funding ever was granted in the 1990s. In this first period after Estonia’s re-independence a respectable number of new enclosures and extensions were created — the Tropical House, a new kangaroo exhibit, a terrarium extension, a waterfowl pond, and a centre for off-exhibit breeding of endangered species.
More recently, in 2014, an Environmental Education Centre was opened to support new and innovative ideas on educational and informational activities. The breeding facilities of the Species Conservation Lab has been renovated in 2016 – 17, while the new polar bear enclosure, Polaarium, was opened in October 2017. Especially the Polaarium was a great improvement, because it made possible to move the polar bears from the adapted old Soviet military storehouse to a brand new fit-for-purpose enclosure. However in 2017, other species still await similar enclosure improvement.
The animal collection grew, but within certain limits, as Zoo management believes that too many species cannot be maintained according to their needs. Hence, they made room for their own preferences and specialised in particular animals. Tallinn Zoo holds a renowned collection of mountain goats and sheep, the largest in Europe and most noteworthy worldwide. In addition, they have an outstanding number of eagles and vultures and a remarkable collection of owl species. As to other taxonomic groups, their choice is more modest, but they present several big attractions such as African elephants, black rhinoceroses, and pygmy hippos, as well as big cats such as Amur tigers, Amur leopards, Asian lions, and snow leopards. Currently, Tallinn Zoo is home to more than 2,200 animals, excluding fishes and invertebrates, from about 510 (sub)species from all over the world.
Furthermore, they may boast significant breeding results of goral (Naemorhedus spp.), East Caucasian tur (Capra caucasica cylindricornis), Bactrian wapiti and white pelicans in their endangered species breeding programmes. Noteworthy are Tallinn Zoo’s efforts in European mink conservation. Tallinn Zoo is the coordinator the European Endangered species Programme (EEP) for . Tallinn Zoos Species Conservation Lab maintains, off-exhibit for conservation, more than half of the world’s captive population of the critically endangered European mink (ca. 100 individuals). The Zoo, in collaboration with foundation Lutreola, has been heading the programme for the establishment of a safe European mink wild population on Hiiumaa Island (1000 km2) for 20 years. These efforts have been successful as there is now a breeding wild population on the island.
Already in 1989, earlier than any other zoo in the Soviet Union, Tallinn Zoo was acknowledged as member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). Besides this milestone the Zoo is also member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) and the Euro-Asian Regional Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EARAZA).
As a considerable part of Estonian residents still cannot afford travelling abroad, the Tallinn Zoo, being the only zoo in the country, serves as an important destination for Estonians to see exotic animals.
(Source: Tallinn Zoo website; EAZA website; Encyclopedia of the World’s Zoos, ed. Catharine E. Bell, 2001; Wikipedia)