The Zoological and Botanical Garden
Budapest Zoo is one of the older zoos in Europe which opened on August 9th, 1866 and was the first Hungarian zoo, established thanks to the efforts of the Hungarian scientific elite. One of them became the first director, János Xantus, a traveler and naturalist. He was one of the four most important men of the scientists, the others were Jozsef Szabo (University professor), Jozsef Gerenday (director of the University Botanical Garden) and Agoston Kubinyi (director of the Hungarian National Museum), without whom the zoo never would have been developed. The small zoo of 16 hectare, situated in the Botanical Garden, was during the first few decades mainly home to creatures of the Carpathian Basin. The zoo kicked off as a private, not for profit company, with help from the Hungarian Academy of Science. The zoo company was transformed into the Society for the Acclimatisation of Plants and Animals in 1872, which was an accurate name as it really was a zoological and botanical garden.
Next to the domestic plants and animals there were a few real specialties, such as a giraffe. The Habsburg realm showed when Franz Joseph offered 35 animals to the Budapest Zoo from Schönbrunn. As a matter of fact, Budapest Zoo received its first giraffe from the Schönbrunn Menagerie in 1868, a gift from Empress Elizabeth. This giraffe was bearing with young when she arrived in Budapest and her calf was the third ever born in captivity. Yet the real favourite (much beloved by Ferenc Deák himself, the famous minister of Justice in those days) was a brown bear by the name of Kristóf (Christopher). The first African elephant arrived in 1875, and an Indian elephant came in 1883, while the Zoo received one of its rarest species in 1894, the Sumatran rhinoceros. The Zoo became well known for its breeding of native wild animals, such as the great European bustard, and native domestic animals, such as the three original Hungarian dog breeds (the puli, puni and vizsla), the great horned Hungarian cattle and several breeds of Hungarian sheep and goats. From the long list of species that have been bred in the Zoo, the most important have been hippopotamuses, giraffes and Indian elephants. The dedication to elephants is more or less reflected in the main entrance gate with its sculptures of these pachyderms.
However, the initial interest quickly waned and the zoo turned to showman, comics, and a lottery as a remedy. These solutions were not too effective, and the mounting problems eventually forced Xantus to resign. The next few years were plagued with numerous director-replacements, as none of the successors were able to solve the lack of funds, and internal battles. Furthermore, the Zoo suffered from contagious animal diseases, and a constant annoyance were the intrusions of the foxes from the City Park. But in 1873 Károly Serák a yeoman from Borsod became the new director.
This was the beginning of the 30-year “Serák Era”, which is still considered the golden age of the Zoo. With lots of experience in reorganization, Serák wanted to solve the financial troubles so he hired tons of comics and showmen, including ethnographical displays (exotic humans shown to the public — an idea originating from Carl Hagenbeck), and he never shied away from artificially tidying up the annual fiscal reports. Yet in the end he still had something to show for: by 1875 the city was willing to support the zoo and the park was soon expanded with a Lions’ den (Oroszlánok Háza) designed by Alajos Hauszmann and the Birdhouse (Madárház) by Andor Semsey. The fast growth and increasing revenues convinced the leadership to prepare an extravagant commemoration for the country’s millennium celebration. Starting in 1890, they began to acquire many new, fascinating creatures like the Nile hippo and the Sumatran rhinos. But visitors were also treated with chimps, orangutans, sea lions, anteaters, the white-tailed gnu, both elephant species, and just about every bear one could imagine.
Following the unprecedented success of 1896, the zoo nevertheless suffered another drawback, while trying to stay an independent society. After their lease expired, the city decided to raise the rent, which the institution could not afford. The last major animal acquisition was in 1898, and in 1907 the zoo entered bankruptcy while its parent company the Zoo and Botanical Group (Állat-és Növénykert Társaság) was dismantled. The city eventually purchased the zoo in 1907. Famous architects were commissioned with the rebuilding and renovation of the establishments. Some of the valuable art-nouveau buildings designed by Károly Kós still can be seen. In 1912 the zoo re-opened and many new species arrived.
Though in the following years the institution had professional directors, who put great impact on education too, little progress was made. The city council had very little financial resources, which was not a surprise as Hungary just became independent and autonomous after a long period under the influence of Austria in the Habsburg Empire. Nevertheless, even in these difficult times some new buildings were erected, such as the earliest public terrarium and a botanical greenhouse. Unfortunately, during World War II the Zoo buildings were heavily damaged and only a few animals survived. After the freezing winter months of 1944 when the Zoo and city of Budapest became a besieged town and battlefield between the Germans and the Russians, 15 animals survived at Budapest zoo. Amazingly, whilst the local people eat anything they could to survive, four or five of these surviving animals were Hippopotami (or Hippopotamuses). These plant eaters survived in the warm waters of the thermal springs there, alongside a handful of ‘singing birds’.
In 1949 the zoo opened for the 3rd time under difficult circumstances. In the 1950’s and 1960’s it slowly regained its status and was re-populated again. During this period there was more emphasis on educational and scientific work. Management organised special courses for keepers and the scientific staff to establish a higher standard. It was in those days that the Budapest Zoo staff wrote The Fundamentals of Zoological Garden Work, one of the first zoo training manuals. In 1966 the 100th anniversary was celebrated with renovations and scientific conferences. In the last decades there was ongoing development and in the 1990s the zoo underwent major reconstruction and an expansion of children’s entertainment services, the much needed asset, like anywhere else in the world, to keep a positive cash flow. So the zoo was raised to a European standard again.
Although considerable improvement had been achieved the Zoo still needed more room to display its collection in a proper manner. Expanding the grounds was almost impossible because of the railway tracks and the roads surrounding the Zoo. But on one side part of the grounds were once handed over to a fairground, and possession of this part was recovered. This resulted in the opening of Holnemvolt Park (‘Once Upon a Time Park’) as an addition to Budapest Zoo on 29 April 2014. This new family leisure park has various exotic and local mammal and bird species on display, such as meerkat, wild boar, fallow deer, ostrich, emu and flamingo, but domestic animals as well. In fact the petting zoo has been moved to this new site. Furthermore the area also features entertainment rides, of which some have been taken over by the Zoo from the original fairground.
Most of the Budapest Zoo and Botanical Garden’s buildings are considered to be historical monuments and the recent reconstruction has restored them to their original state and beauty to face the 21st century, while preserving the old atmosphere. Antal Szkalnitzky and Henrik Koch Jr originally designed the zoo in the Romantic style. Between 1909 and 1912, many of the old buildings were torn down to make way for the new facilities designed by the famous architects Károly Kós and Deszõ Zrumeczky. This was the advent of the Main Gate decorated with elephants, the Elephant House (Elefántház) of which its beautiful Moorish architecture can be seen here, the Small and Big Cliff (Kis-, Nagyszikla), the Palm House (Pálmaház), the Monkey House (Majomház), the Pheasant Preserve (Fácános), the Deer House (Szarvasház), the Rodent House (Rágcsálóház), the Bird House (Madárház), and the Bambi-house (Bambi-ház). The Aquarium uses the latest technology to display about 150 species.
(Source: website Budapest Zoo; worldwarzoogardener1939’s blog; Wikipedia; “Zoo and Aquarium History” by Vernon N. Kisling, jr.)