On a nice and sunny day I visited Cologne Zoo for the second time. This time I really wanted to see the inside of the elephant building, and the South America House, both I had to skip in May 2011. The elephant building due to lack of time and bad prioritisation, while the South America House was closed for refurbishment. And at the end of the day it turned out I had some time left to visit the Aquarium building across from the entrance of the Zoo.
When you are a regular visitor to my site, and have been reading some visit reports, you may know that I am not a great enthusiast of aquariums in general. I do not see the value for conservation’s sake in keeping non-endangered species in endless rows of (small) tanks, which is what you see most in aquariums, still. These exhibits with mostly brightly coloured odd-sized exotic fish attract and mesmerise lots of visitors and can support the message that zoos want to get across, absolutely. But fish do not appeal to me, at least not as much as mammals and birds. I do appreciate balanced collections, extraordinary enclosures or specific exhibitions to educate the people about the bad weather oceans are in. Nevertheless, the only time I really liked an aquarium was when there were sea otters on display.
For the Aquarium, Cologne Zoo only managed to have a good score for their balanced and large collection considering the above mentioned criteria , in my opinion. The building comprises a section with fish tanks and vivariums on the ground floor, and a section with insects on the second floor. Most of the reptile, amphibia and fish species are kept in endless rows of vivariums or water tanks in the old-fashioned way. Among the few exceptions I identified were, the pig-nosed turtle (Carettochelys insculpta) and the Philipines crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis) — listed as Vulnerable and Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ respectively — the most eye-catching. According to the information panel at one of the several enclosures, the Philipines crocodile is the most endangered crocodile species in the world with only about 100 adult individuals left in the wild. Their endangered status requires that for their survival a captive population need to be created. Cologne Zoo is the only German zoo involved in this effort. Keeping this crocodile species in captivity isn’t easy, because they are very aggressive and cannot be held together permanently. Therefore, at Cologne Zoo, the individuals are kept separated in different enclosures.
Being the main goal of my visit this time, I spent quite some time navigating the premises around the 2 hectares elephant park. The Asian elephants at Cologne Zoo live together as a herd day and night. The only time a single individual is separated from the herd, is when it is time for target training to get the animal used to the handling needed for medical treatment or a pedicure. Nevertheless it appears there’s a group within the herd that spend more time together than with the other herd members. Or, perhaps, the others single themselves out. According the Zoo’s website 15 elephants live in their park, but during my visit only 12 were on display. At least, I counted only twelve elephants, and an elephant cannot easily hide itself . One of the elderly females was quite skinny and looked a bit fragile, but she was treated with much respect by the others. The herd was very tranquil and not much happened while I was around. So, I went inside and saw a large exhibit with a hard surface. One part of the floor had a soil bedding and sloped upwards to the indoor pool. The public has viewing access from a balcony close to this pool. Must be great fun to be there and watch the elephants take their bath. Another thing pleasing to the eye is the design of the roof. The wooden ceiling is supported by just a few massive metal pillars that at the top have beams that radiate outwards, creating a centre that allows natural light to enter the building.
The South America House, originally the Bird House designed after a Russian cathedral, now has on display an exhibition celebrating Cologne Zoo’s 150 year history. Although I don’t know in what condition the building was three years ago when renovation was ongoing, it still doesn’t look very ‘healthy’ to me. Especially the rusty support beams for the roof could do with some additional maintenance. The place is stripped from all immovables except for the wire-mesh tunnels at ceiling height that connects different enclosures of the South-American monkey species. Several of them preferred to be inside in these tunnels instead of in their nice outdoor enclosures, which seemed strange to me since the weather was so good. All the red howler monkeys were hanging out inside, I saw a white-faced saki and a cotton-top tamarin was very curiously looking at the visitors beneath him. The only species I didn’t see inside was the white-lipped tamarin. The exhibition on the Zoo’s 150 year history looked interesting, but to be honest, I skipped it. Not only because I already bought and read the magnificent book ‘Der Kölner Zoo — begeistert für Tiere’ about the Zoo’s history, the last time I was here, but also because I was running out of time again.
Right after the entrance the Zoo looked like a huge construction site where the ‘Clemenshof’ was being built, a classical German farm and a new Zoo school. The farm will have rare breeds of farm animals on display, and the school will be a big improvement compared to the old prefab building in the centre of the grounds. All to be opened in July this year, and part of the master plan ‘Kölner Zoo 2020 — begeistert für Tiere’ with its deadline at 2020. Furthermore two major renovations were nearly finished, and to be opened in May — the restaurant near the entrance and the side-entrance close to the elephant park.
In other words, although everything still looked as beautiful as during my 2011 visit, improvements were being implemented to make the Zoo ready for the next decade or so. Unfortunately, the Zoo also experienced a terrible accident in August 2012 when a tiger escaped its enclosure and got access to the storage room where it mauled a zookeeper, who died from her injuries. The tiger was shot dead through a skylight when it was still in the storage room, by the Zoo’s director Theo Pagel, before it could get to public areas.
Situated next to the botanical garden just outside the city centre of Cologne, the Zoo is a typical city zoo. Its accessibility profits from an excellent public transport system. As soon as you pass the entrance and start following the circular footpath there is no busy city anymore. Because of the circular footpath it is easy navigating in this more or less rectangular zoo, with several cross paths to get from one side to the other. The zoological park with its vegetation provides a tranquility which is typical for large botanical gardens in busy metropoles. Of course the Zoo is surrounded by large city office buildings and apartment complexes, but these do not distract you from what you actually came here for to see: animals in enclosures. Some of the people living in the apartments adjacent to the Zoo where the sea lion pool is situated have quite a good view on the Zoo inhabitants and enclosures. Although they might get fed up with the noise of the Zoo visitors applauding the performance of the sea lions during feeding. This sea lion pool with its artificial rock face of nine meters, opened in 1887, is one of the enclosures that was rebuilt after World War II, and can be considered a masterpiece of construction for that period. Though with a length of 27 meters and width of 15 meters it is small in size when for instance compared to the sea lion pool in Gelsenkrichen Zoo. Nevertheless it creates a naturalistic environment with animal shelters and feed storage hidden behind the artificial rocks. And above all, it is still impressive to watch the sea lions diving from the rock face.
Another old enclosure — or better: old building — that was rebuilt after the World War II destruction is the Bird House, opened in 1899 and designed after a Russian cathedral. A great attraction at the time with rare bird species on display, such as the greater bird of paradise, the great hornbill, the Guianan toucanet, toucans, cockatoos and drongos. In 1989 this milestone of zoo design was converted into the south-american House and during my visit it was closed for refurbishment.
With this lack of old buildings in the Zoo which opened its gates on 22 July 1860, it becomes clear how much suffering Cologne Zoo endured during wartime in Germany. Not only buildings did not survive these difficult times, animals as well, unfortunately. But the Zoo recovered from these hardships and now presents enclosures which are bar-less according the Hagenbeck principle. Furthermore, zoo management follow the modern practice of creating biotopes for the species they have on display with a habitat resembling the naturalistic environment. What they don’t have is mixed species exhibits, which is being introduced in most modern zoos nowadays. Regarding the grouping of the animals, giving them the benefit of the doubt, the Zoo is in a transition phase. At the moment the way the animals are grouped and located is rather confusing. It is a mix of continental grouping, like most African animals are to be found close together, and taxonomic grouping, such as the primates, the felids and the birds. Sometimes the grouping is more habitat driven, as in the Madagascar house or near the main entrance with species that are to be found in desert-like environments (meerkat, onager, camel). The modern type of enclosure called ‘landscape immersion’ has not been introduced (yet), but the Tropical Rainforest house which opened in 2000 comes close to meet the requirements of such an enclosure where people can see animals exploring their naturalistic environment. The only thing is that the public is walking through the enclosure, which enables close encounters and possibly disturb natural behaviour, like in all walk-through enclosures of course. The Rainforest house inhabits species from south-east Asia, including Bali starling, red-tailed laughingthrush, several cockatoo species, white-handed gibbon, Asian small-clawed otter and the Matschie’s tree kangaroo.
Most of the enclosures with carnivores are designed with large moats that have a steep decline towards a concrete wall on the visitor’s side, to separate the animals from the public. The bar-less principle has been adopted long ago, and now they are expanding the enclosures to provide the animals more space and ample opportunity to express natural behaviour using numerous enrichment methods.
So me of the enclosures really stand out, like the already mentioned Rainforest house. Another interesting exhibit is the brand new Hippodome, which opened in 2010, Cologne Zoo’s 150th anniversary. The public follows a footpath between two large water reservoirs, containing on one side crocodiles and on the other side hippopotamuses. The hippopotamuses share the basin with nile tilapia and can be spotted when submerged if they swim close to the enormous glass viewing window. The Hippodome is a mixed species exhibit as there are also cattle egrets and hammerkops (Scopus umbretta), which can fly freely around and join the hippos as well as the crocs in their environment. The hippos have an outside enclosure as an alternative for the magnificent Hippodome, but surprisingly this does not contain a pool.
The meerkat enclosure has got a striking, but not a naturalistic, design with its large funnel-shaped or flower-like features. As in most of the enclosures there is lots of enrichment and the animals can dig and build tunnels to their hearts content. The bear enclosures (Malayan sun bears and grizzly bears) have a typical rockface on the city side and a moat on the zoo side, with the grizzlies provided with water in their moat. The vegetation in these enclosures does give some possibility to hide from the public or lie in the shade, but whenever they really want to get away from it all they need to go into their night shelters.
The red panda exhibit is worth mentioning because I never seen such a large tree in a zoological setting as they have at their disposal.
All of the big cats have enclosures with lots of natural vegetation, except for the snow leopard. This felid, with its natural habitat on higher altitudes in the Himalayas is provided with artificial rocks and observation posts at different levels along the rockface, together with a small waterfall. Although the Persian leopard enclosure has a similar construction the inside of this enclosure is remarkably different with its jungle-like appearance. Both these enclosures have an interesting construction of the roof (see picture). The Amur tiger has nice hiding places with straw bedding, but a real good high level observation post is missing.
The way the primates are grouped is a bit messy from educational point of view. It needs some time before you have figured out that they grouped together apes with old world monkeys, except the baboons, and that the new world monkeys, white-faced saki, red howler monkey and yellow-breasted capuchin, and the lemurs are to be found in a different part of the zoo. So, the Zoo’s apes (Hominidae), gorilla, orang-utan and bonobo, can be found in one corner of the premises together with colobus monkey, red-shanked douc langur and lion-tailed macaque, which are not apes. While the ape-related white-handed gibbon is housed in the Rainforest house. This rather challenging way of displaying the primates is outweighed by the way these animals are housed. All of them have access to a superb outdoors enclosure with the lion-tailed macaques taking turns with the Bornean orang-utans in the same outdoors exhibit. And the gorillas sharing their outdoors with the colobus monkeys. All have access to their outdoors via a walkway crossing the visitors footpath. The indoors primate enclosures contain lots of artificial enrichment, while the large outdoors provide natural vegetation. As the outdoors enclosures are fenced off using different materials like glass windows, wire mesh and wooden pallisades, they provide secluded areas for the animals. Especially the gorilla/colobus exhibit looks great. It just makes it a little bit harder for the public to spot the animals, but on the other hand the animals will probably express more natural behaviour than in very exposed circumstances like in the old days.
In the Madagascar house lemurs can be found, obviously, with every species housed in a separate enclosure. This is nothing special, but the once revolutionary outdoor cages on poles are still of interesting design and are accessible for the animals via specific walkways.
The absolute highlight of Cologne Zoo is the Asian elephant enclosure, which is the largest elephant enclosure north of the European Alps. Its large grounds provide the 14 elephants with lots of enrichment. Especially when the animals use the pools close to the café this is great entertainment for the people on the terrace. And not only the outdoors enclosure is large, the indoors is as well.