The island Korkeasaari, just before the coast of Helsinki, has been a recreational park for Helsinki people long before the zoo was founded, since 1569. It was first used as pasture and for fishing. In the 19th century, it was used for storing timber. During the Crimean war (1853−1856), the island was a military area and closed for the public. Helsinki city gained access to it again and after lengthy negotiations and debate in the press, the island was restored to public use for Helsinki inhabitants after nearly ten years, in 1864. The visit of Emperor Alexander II to Helsinki is also thought to have influenced the outcome of the debate. Then the recreational use really started: steamboat traffic was established, and the island of Korkeasaari became a popular park to the citizens of Helsinki. As people liked to go to the island to picnic it was decided to establish a restaurant. A few years after the completion of the restaurant, an idea spawned regarding the placing of a small collection of animals in Korkeasaari. Two hawks in cages had already been introduced to the park, and they had attracted a lot of attention. Lieutenant Fabritius, the Secretary to the Board of Directors of Anniskeluyhtiö, the restaurateurs society, was authorised to view the Stockholm and Copenhagen zoos among the other duties on his travels. Fabritius became keen on the subject, drew up a compreh ensive report and proposed establishing a zoo in Korkeasaari.
The city fathers and management of Anniskeluyhtiö were in favour of establishing the zoo; after all, it would provide the working class and children of poor families with an elevating pastime and education. However, there was a heated debate regarding the final location of the zoo, and after voting it was only by a slight majority that it was decided that it should be established at Korkeasaari instead of the rival location between Alppila and Pasila, which even today bears the name Eläintarha (zoo in Finnish).
The Helsinki Zoo was established in 1889. However, animals had been housed in the park even before that. Many new animals were donated to the zoo. Finally, the zoo had to place an advertisement in the newspaper asking people to stop offering new animals because they were unable to construct animal shelters as quickly as the growing collection of animals would have required. The animal shelters were works of art by the contemporary architects. The old stone-walled Bear Castles and the Polar Bear Castle by the quay, both dating back to the early 1900s, still remind us of the history of keeping animals in Korkeasaari.
Both World Wars had severe impact on the existence of the zoo. Its final renaissance began in the 1950s: The new Bear Castle was completed in time for the Olympic year 1952, and the Monkey House in 1956. The first Cat Valley was completed in 1964.
In summer, the zoo was accessible by boat and in winter by a road over the ice. Steamboats carried picnickers to the island well before the zoo was established. Regular ferry traffic began in 1949, and it continued until the early 1980s when the current boat connections were introduced. The zoo has only been open to the public throughout the year since 1974 when the first temporary bridge from Mustikkamaa was completed. The current bridge was built in 2004. As the Zoo is situated just a stone’s throw from the southern tip of Kalasatama, the sounds of the wild cats carry over the water to the mainland in springtime and can sometimes be heard. A new bridge and tram connection will be built to Korkeasaari as part of the Kruunuvuorenselkä bridge project. An international open ideas competition for the development of Helsinki Zoo, held in 2009, was won by the French architecture firm Beckmann-N´Thepe in collaboration with landscape designer TN+ Agency (see the evaluation). The zoo will subsequently undergo major changes over the coming decade.
The Zoo’s look and activities have changed in its 120 years of operation. The concepts behind animal husbandry and good facilities and activities for the animals, and the attitudes of the public towards the animals is completely different from when the Zoo was established. Animal facility construction throughout Europe is regulated by rules that aim for the well-being of the animals. The objective of the Helsinki Zoo is also to ensure that the behaviour of the animals is as natural as possible, which means that the animals are not tamed, and cubs are not bottle-fed.
Helsinki Zoo has been involved, next to other nature conservation and education activities, in returning back to nature captive bred endangered species. The Zoo has donated ibexes to the Austrian Alps, European bison to Russia, lynx to Poland, European minks to Estonia and snowy owls and golden eagles to suitable habitats in Finland.
(Source: website Helsinki zoo; Wikipedia; Helsinki’s Horizon 2030 , Helsinki City Planning Department, 2010)