Sofia Zoo’s history goes way back. Bulgaria, at least the original territories it partly encompasses, was once part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. After the war between Russia and the Turkish Empire, Bulgaria gained some degree of independence in 1878. When Prince Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha – an amateur ornithologist and keen nature lover with scientific interest who spent a lot of time in the field collecting animals and plants – became head of state in 1888 he assigned by decree a site for a zoological garden in the royal botanical garden, at the time a former city dump on the outskirts of town but nowadays near Borysova gardens. The new site was necessary because the small animal collection created by Prince Ferdinand, with its centrepiece the birdcage holding a black vulture next to common pheasants, red deer and a pair of brown bears, became too large to be maintained in the garden of the royal palace of Vrana. Nonetheless, 1888 can be regarded as the year Sofia Zoo was founded, which makes it the oldest zoo in the Balkans.
Thus, in 1890, the royal zoological garden was established on the edge of the city. In addition to the animals of the existing collection, otters, wild goats, lama, birds of prey, swans and cranes were accommodated in the new 2.4 ha facilities. Keepers were appointed, and a sculptor, Ernst Hublein, was called from Coburg especially to take on the job of supervisor. Besides sculptor, Hublein was a keen taxidermist. And his skill to stuff the zoo animals that died, laid the foundation of the National Museum of Natural History, originally named the Royal Prince ’s Natural History Museum. This tradition to stuff the rare and more valuable animals from Sofia Zoo still continues.
In 1892, the Zoo’s animal collection was extended with a pair of African lions, which were purchased from Leipzig Zoo by Hublein. Already that same year the lions procreated and the cow barn had to be turned into a temporary lion enclosure. Until 1893 the animals in the Zoo could only be admired by the royal family and their guests. However, interest in the animals housed in the zoological garden grew among Sofia citizens, and in the summer of 1893 the gardens were opened to the common people. At first only for three days a week, but free of charge. The species collection became more and more varied, and besides the lions, dromedary camels, elk (Cervus canadensis) and Barbary sheep were acquired. At the same time – under the new manager, ornithologist Paul Leverkühn, who also headed the staff of the National Museum of Natural History – buildings and other enclosures were constructed. Perhaps the most important of these constructions were the elongated aviary with 24 separate cages for pheasants and other gallinaceous birds, and the large domed aviary for bearded vultures, griffon vultures and black vultures. The Zoo successfully bred the bearded vultures, producing 13 offspring with a single pair of adult birds in about 20 years. This achievement, unique at the time when nowhere else this bird was bred in captivity, brought great respect from the zoological community. From then on Sofia Zoo was considered a serious scientific zoological institution. Other important milestones during the management of Leverkühn were the new bear house, carnivore house and the first pool for waterfowl, including pelicans, black swans, ducks and geese.
At the end of the 19th century the zoo collection had already an impressive 1,384 animals of 266 species on display on the small territory. Their reproduction successes resulted even in surplus stock that was sent to parks in other towns, such as Varna, Ruse and Kritchin, forming the start of a zoological collection in these places. In Sofia Zoo, however, progress continued with creating the terrarium holding South European snakes and lizards, as well as a young Mississippi alligator donated by a lady from Sofia who had bought it at the World Exhibition in Chicago. Meanwhile other species were added to the collection, such as a pair of lynx in 1902, two Tibetan yaks in 1905, and the rare Carolina parakeet, indigenous to the United States of America. The latter was introduced by Adolf Schumann who was appointed as general inspector of the Zoo in 1911 and who had gained experience in zoos and private collections in Austria and Germany. His terms ended in 1940, while the Carolina parakeet’s terms ended with extinction – although one of the only two stuffed specimens of this parakeet in the world can be seen in the collection of the Museum of Natural Science in Sofia. In 1912 the Zoo received a male and a female Asian elephant from Tierpark Hagenbeck in Hamburg. These two pachyderms were first put in temporary enclosures at the stables of the royal palace in Vrana, where Prince Ferdinand began his animal collection. Zoo management had problems designing and building a proper enclosure for the elephants, which led to a prolonged stay in Vrana until well after the end of WWI. Sofia Zoo survived the war undamaged, but it took another ten years before the elephants could be transferred to the royal zoological gardens, in 1929. That was the beginning of the tradition of keeping elephants in Sofia Zoo, which is reflected in the Zoo’s logo today, an elephant with a crown on top. These first two elephants never procreated while the male passed away of an anthrax infection in 1940, and the female died of an internal parasitic infection in 1953.
In this period a special annual log-book was meticulously kept by the veterinarians, which also proofed all animals were well taken care of. Having a keeper on duty every night was another sign that this was the case.
Then WWII broke out and this war didn’t pass unnoticed. As Bulgaria supported Germany – at least politically – and didn’t expel German forces from its territory, the Soviet Union declared war on Bulgaria in 1944. This led to heavy allied bombing on Bulgaria’s capital. However, while this left Sofia in ruins the Zoo escaped total destruction, as the rest of the country suffered little damage as well. While many terrified Sofia citizens had fled to the countryside, the zookeepers searched the streets and ruins of Sofia for dead horses, oxen and other domestic animals to feed the remaining carnivores. But they also had to make difficult decisions about which ungulate of the remaining collection had to be shot to feed the carnivores, as there was a constant shortage of meat. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of the keepers, the zoological garden continued to exist after the war when, in 1945, Bulgaria became an independent socialist republic. And while Sofia Zoo was completely restored, it became part of the Bulgarian Academy of Science in 1947.
The change of geopolitical influence on Bulgaria after WWII made it easier for the Zoo to acquire its first shipment of new animals from the Soviet Union, East Germany and other socialist countries in the 1950s. Fortunately, animals arrived from other regions as well, with a pair of Asian elephants as the highlight in 1954. They were shipped to Varna harbour and from there travelled by train arriving two days later in Sofia Zoo. The male elephant had only a short life at the Zoo. He died in 1964, but not before he had made the elephant cow pregnant. The happy occasion of the first ever birth of an elephant calf in Sofia Zoo took place on 13 April 1965. Although lively and playful, the female calf had to be bottle-fed, because she wouldn’t drink from her mother. Despite this, she grew up healthy and strong until at the age of three a sadistic visitor gave her a loaf of bread with needles inside which led to her painful death. The second elephant calf born at the Zoo in 1973 awaited a similar fate. The bull calf was poisoned by another deranged visitor using strychnine.
As of 1960 Sofia Zoo was under the management and administration of the municipal government. Meanwhile the animal collection grew steadily and new species such as penguins, antelopes and zebras were added regularly. It became obvious that the size of the available grounds was too small, both for the number of animals and the increasing number of visitors. Due to the enormous interest of the public it was decided to have the Zoo remain open during the winter season of 1965 – 1966, for the first time ever. Altogether it was clear that the Zoo had to expand. A plan was conceived for building a brand new zoo in 1966 by architects Radoslavov and Iliev in the foothills of the Vitosha Mountain. The construction was an enormous task for the municipal authorities, but work commenced and with the significant help of Sofia citizen volunteers the three stages of construction were as good as completed in 1983. So, after 15 years of building a new site of 24 hectares (and another 12 hectares for future development) was ready to receive the animals. The transport of the animals to the new site was an enormous operation which required lots of preparatory work. A large number of special wooden crates were made to facilitate the transfer of the different animals, while a special big metal cage was created for the Zoo’s single elephant cow, the one who lost both her newborn calves due to insane actions of two visitors. The mass animal transfer was carried out in 1984 with the last animal arriving from the old site in August. On 10 September 1984 the brand new Sofia Zoo was officially opened.
Having spent nearly all their money on this huge project a financial predicament awaited. Especially, because they couldn’t let Sofia Zoo’s 100th anniversary in 1988 pass unnoticed. But thanks to many grants, gifts, presents, legacies, and donations from Bulgarian citizens and many wealthy Bulgarians living abroad these 100th anniversary celebrations were made possible after all. On the day of its 100th anniversary, the Zoo had nearly 2,500 animals on display of about 250 different species.
In 1968 the Zoo already had started its education programme for children in a so-called zoo school, but following the modern trend in zoos more emphasis was placed on this function in the 1990s. In 1998 the Zoo founded the Environmental Education and Research Centre (EERC), located in a separate building in the ‘heart’ of the Zoo grounds. Apart from engaging the public in the objectives a modern zoo stands for, such as zoo animal welfare, nature conservation and research, the people working at the EERC collaborate with many relevant institutions in the field of education, conservation and research work.
Similar to what many other zoos in the world did, raising additional funds for the Zoo to address the broad scope of its mission was paramount. For this purpose an animal adoption programme has been set up and in operation since 1995. This implicitly created a valuable group of people that can be called ‘friends of the zoo.’
In 2009 a remarkable incident showed how vulnerable an institute such as Sofia Zoo can be. Due to a pricing dispute between Bulgaria and Russia the Russian gas supply was stopped, and as a consequence the central heating at the zoo was shut down. About a third of the 1,300 animals at the zoo were vulnerable to the resulting cold and employees had to find portable electric and oil heaters to heat their enclosures.
As of 2013 the Zoo focusses also more on its botanical function with a dendrology route that has been developed, along which visitors can see 40 interesting species of trees and shrubs from around the world.
Nowadays, Sofia Zoo covers an area of 36 hectares, which makes it, besides being the oldest, also the largest zoo in the Balkans. The Zoo is engaged in nature conservation activities by participating actively in national and international breeding programmes for rare and endangered species such as birds of prey, big cats (Persian leopard, Amur Tiger, Eurasian lynx) and antelopes.
Sofia Zoo is currently (2018) a candidate member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), and it is in the process of upgrading its facilities to meet current European standards in preparation for becoming a full member of EAZA.
(Source: Sofia Zoo website; Zoo and Aquarium History, ed. Vernon N. Kisling, Jr., 2001; Wikipedia; Revolvy.com page on Sofia Zoo, accessed 20.12.2018)