Two old schoolmates, Piet Knoester and Wim Tertoolen, decided after WWI to establish a zoo in Amersfoort. In 1948 they opened the doors for the first time. At that time the zoo was called Zoo Birkhoven, but this was eventually changed in Amersfoort Zoo. The two entrepeneurs had different interests. Piet knew how to handle animals and Wim how to handle people, the visitors. Together, including Wim’s wife, they worked day and night to make the zoo a success. And a success it was. After 5,000 visitors in the first year, the zoo was visited by 40,000 people the next year. This gradually increased to a vast 700,000 visitors per year.
They started with just a small animal collection, an Asian black bear, a bactrian camel, a drill and s ome farm animals. But already in 1954 the first big cats arrived, two lions and a leopard. In 1956 elephants from Thailand. And at that time about 20 species of primates (over 80 animals) were exhibited in the zoo.
Amersfoort Zoo is a family run business. In 1964, Wim’s daughter came in charge together with her husband Henk Vis. Both their sons are involved too, one as director and the other as advisor. Though an executive director has been appointed, Mr. Kuipers, the family Vis still has its influence in the park.
(Source: website Amersfoort Zoo)
The I visited Amersfoort Zoo was more than 7 years ago. There were some relics from the past and they seemed eager to modernise the Zoo wherever necessary, with the brand new elephant house as proof. So, I am curious what became of all the ideas, and whether the decisions that have been made can be considered wise. Well to give a heads-up, I am not disappointed regarding the number of changes, but not all decisions are appreciated, to put it mildly.
There are three major changes to record since my last visit, of which the extension of the park the farthest away from the entrance is most impressive and most costly I presume. For this large extension another part of the original forest of the Birkhoven estate is annexed and turned into modern exhibits.
In July 2015 the Great Wilderness (‘De Grote Wildernis’) was opened to the public. It includes a river that winds around two beautiful primate islands, a walk-through exhibit for the Endangered ring-tailed lemurs and crowned lemurs and another island for the Critically Endangered yellow-breasted capuchin (Sapajus xanthosternos). This section with the primate islands, also offers a fairground attraction – pedal boats. You can sail these boats along the banks of the primate island as well as the sandy beach of the savannah area with the giraffes. You also come along the sitatunga or marsh-buck (Tragelaphus spekii) enclosure that doesn’t provide a real swamp for this swamp-dwelling species, unlike for instance the magnificent swamp for the sitatunga at Odense Zoo, Denmark. But the idea is that the sitatunga will step into the river and take a bath while visitors pass in a pedal boat. I suppose this to be wishful thinking. The sitatunga can broaden their horizon since they have access to the African savannah area via a small passageway. By the way, the reverse is not possible for the large giraffes. And although not very important, I would like to make a positive remark about the colour of the giraffe stables – they got rid of the awful yellow and have repainted them dark grey, which is much better.
For me fairground attractions such as pedal boats brings no added value to many zoo visit, because hardly ever it will allow you to see something you will not see otherwise, perhaps from a different angle, but that’s it. Nevertheless it appears to be a successful new touch here in Amersfoort. Many visitors enjoy this entertainment feature even though the ride is not for free.
A year later, in July 2016, an adjacent part called the Forest (‘het Woud’) was opened. As you may expect this part is situated in an area with many trees, although a bit small perhaps it is very well suited for the wolves with plenty of options for them to hide in the green undulating landscape of their enclosure. The Forest offers typical Dutch nature, so it’s no wonder that there’s a badgers burrow as well. The badger is native to the Netherlands and legally protected – its population is vulnerable but healthy1. Since a few years several wolves have found their way to the Netherlands again, crossing the border coming from Germany.
Another major change since my last visit and second on the scale of impressiveness is the large walk-through aviary called Beak Kingdom (‘Snavelrijk’). This has been established in an area originally belonging to the savannah area. They sacrificed part of the wonderful savannah exhibit together with the Watusi cattle, a ruminant of a show-stopping beauty. But domesticated and a breed of livestock, and therefore rightfully so removed from the Zoo’s collection.
The aviary was opened to the public on 5 July 2014 and it is claimed to be the largest aviary (3000 m2) in the Netherlands. It comprises birds that are endemic to Africa or find their habitat in many geographical region including Africa – Marabou stork, yellow-billed stork (Mycteria ibis), glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), hamerkop, griffon vulture. The Dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus crispus), however, is the odd one out, because this migratory bird can be found in lakes, rivers, deltas and estuaries of many places, but Africa is not one of them. The birds have ample opportunity to fly around, roost on the trees or paddle around the large pond as driven by their respective natural instincts.
The third major alteration is the brand new African lion exhibit, opened to the public on 8 July 2017, on exactly the same location as the old lion exhibit only about three times bigger (1500 m2). So, it’s still part of the ‘Ancient City’, but this time the specific theme for the lions’ exhibit is ancient Rome, especially the Colosseum with its brutal confrontations between gladiators, but also between man and beast. They have paid attention to every little ornamental detail, but forgot that the many window panes they have used as fences, get fogged up during cold damp days. Which has the opposite effect of what they want to achieve, no sight instead of clear sight. Window panes can be a photographer’s enemy, because they can act as a mirror and prevent a view of the interior and the enclosure’s inhabitants. But worse, the male lion that arrived from Warsaw Zoo became when seeing his own reflection in the window panes, according a Zoo representative I talk to. The lion’s aggression requires a temporary separation from the three lionesses, actually sisters, that came from GaiaZoo Kerkrade, and they hope for the best – that he gets used to this new enclosure with his alleged ‘rival’ inside. It’s obvious that the lions would be too much exposed with all these windows and the regular steel wire fences still not covered by the new plantings. Therefore, plastic sheets are attached to these fences to give the lions some privacy. The watch tower of the ‘Ancient City’ offers an option to the visitors to avoid the view-blocking fogged up windows. But to enjoy the beautiful views of the enclosure down below I have to endure a walk through the dungeon and climb some skewed steps of a staircase that ends at a rope bridge. Yes, indeed, kids only access.
Since March 2016 there’s also the new enclosure, Chinese style, for red pandas to be admired. It brings Amersfoort Zoo up to speed with other serious zoos, because they all have red pandas on display nowadays. The red panda is considered Endangered in its native habitat – Nepal, India, Bhutan, China, Myanmar – and a captive breeding programme exists for this species in Europe. So, it’s understandable and even justified to add such a species to the animal collection of a well-respected zoo. But to me it appears as if market value – how many additional visitors a species will attract – and ‘what does the competition have on display’ are the most important factors when new species are considered. Like the snowy owl which presence is ubiquitous in zoos nowadays and which conservation status is of Least Concern according the Red List. Beauty and cuteness, for which the red panda qualifies, may not be the sole driving factors for building an animal collection of a zoological facility that takes nature conservation, biodiversity and education seriously, in my opinion. Fortunately, here in Amersfoort they created an interesting red panda enclosure full of trees. These are existing trees around which they built the exhibit. So, the wire mesh they used for the ceiling has tree trunks and branches go through. The red pandas have access to all trees, but cannot climb as high as they probably would like to do in the wild.
Not all novelties and renovations are as obvious as the ones mentioned above, nevertheless the Japanese macaque exhibit got a complete makeover in 2016. The waterfall returned, 16 climbing trees were added as well as many metres of rope. Further to this a system is in place now that prevents the pond to freeze over. This makes it possible for the macaques to go outside in winter, which they like very much, because they are well suited to withstand low temperatures.
The Kingdom of Giants has developed nicely since 2010. The outdoor paddocks for the Asian elephants are now surrounded by beautiful vegetation, including several bamboo species. While back in 2010, when this elephant exhibit of 4,000 m2 was just opened, the outdoor facilities looked new and bare all around. The two elephant calves born this year are alive and kicking and quite entertaining I see (see ) when I seek shelter in the elephant house from a rain shower. These two calves are the latests in a row of offspring born to the elephant herd in this Kingdom of Giants.
The last Indian rhinoceros that remained in the Zoo died in 2016 at the age of 18. Since August last year two Cape buffalo cows (from Hilvarenbeek Zoo in the Netherlands) are temporarily housed in the former rhino enclosure. According the website the Zoo is planning for a return of rhinoceroses, originally scheduled for spring 2017, but until then these two representative of the African make the rhino enclosure their home.
Before I leave I have a last final look at the brown bear enclosure, just to see if I can identify the remote feeder (more information ) they started to use in August 2016, as a Dutch first, to enrich the lives of their brown bears.
I am not sure how serious Amersfoort Zoo is about education, but I’m not very enthusiastic about the modern way of information provision with the smartphone app replacing decent information panels at the enclosures and a paper map. This is apart from the many gaps in relevant information I found (see ). Nonetheless, educational visits can be booked for all school levels including university students.
In 2003 Amersfoort Zoo founded the Wildlife Fund (official name: Stichting Dierenpark Amersfoort Wildlife Fund) that engages in of endangered species. The portfolio of projects is still rather small, with the latest focussed on support of the Red Panda Network in Nepal, after the Zoo opened its red panda exhibit in 2016.
1 – website Das & Boom (in Dutch)
The first mild days of the year indicate that spring has arrived. An excellent moment to visit a Dutch zoo. Although a slight drizzle reminds me of the cold and rainy days we had for weeks in a row, the temperature is fine. So is the start of my visit of Amersfoort Zoo. A walk– through aviary with all kinds of parakeets brings you in the right mood. Most of the parakeets come from private owners and probably have been single housed. As could be expected they seem to flourish in this aviary where they are kept together. Next-door is the bear pit, which of course is not a pit anymore. It is an attractive looking and spacious enclosure. At least attractive to the public, because viewing is good, as the front of the enclosure is made of glass. This allows for close encounters. Just an inch of glass between you and the beast; it’s fascinating, but isn’t it too much to ask from the beast? The brown bears do not seem to mind, they are very relaxed.
A couple of meters ahead the newly arrived coatis move around happily in their enclosure which looks similar to the bear pit, only smaller.
But, after these quite modern enclosures you arrive at the old outdoor elephant enclosure. Which is soon going to be abandoned, because new facilities are ready for use. The new indoor enclosure has opened its door to the public last autumn. And this was really necessary. But this can be said for some other facilities as well. Like the old-fashioned aviaries, wherein also the green-cheeked amazons are kept, which EEP is coordinated by Amersfoort Zoo. The chimpanzee enclosure has seen better days and is just plain ugly. Mind you, this qualification is subjective and the 15 chimps seem to enjoy themselves very much using the scaffolding-poles for climbing.
And from this point onwards you walk through a zoo where modernisation is accompanied by good ideas and sometimes some very bad decisions. The kingdom of giants (elephant house, 600m2) and the savannah (with giraffes, watusi cattle, zebra and guinaefowl) are modern and spacious enclosures. Unfortunately, the latter has stables for the giraffes which are painted yellow and can be seen from everywhere at this far end of the zoo. The architecture of this building is awful, so why paint it yellow, because it really does not fit in with the green trees. When entering the ‘ancient city’, you come to an exhibit which is the result of a well-explored theme. The ruins of an ancient city with an Eastern atmosphere now houses animals. Beasts that took over the place. The Hagenbeck idea of not having any fences and bars seems to be implemented by blocking passages with glass panes, sometimes on both sides. This creates enclosures for the animals and sometimes a surprisingly effective illusion as if there is no separation between you and the animals. All the animals are from the African continent (lion, cheetah, hyena, barbary sheep, hamadryas baboon, cape hyrax and Waldrapp ibis), until after the last door you suddenly are confronted with amur tigers. Exactly this, shows the lack of logics in the way the animals are grouped in this zoo. Without doubt this is a legacy from the past, but in the meantime the animals are not grouped according continental appearance, or taxonomic classification, or sociobiological order. It is just a variety of animals. Though, it has to be said, not as many species as possible and not in a row of small enclosures. They try to bring the enclosures up to a level that modern standards are met. And they are honest when they say that the enclosure for the cheetah is not fit for purpose, while it provides too little sunshine and and not enough space for running. The cheetah is a temporary guest and comes from ‘Beekse Bergen’ safari park, which will take back the cheetah when it has room again for this beautiful animal. Nevertheless, Amersfoort Zoo was one of the first European zoos which had successful breeding results with cheetahs.
As I said before there are some features of this zoo which are outdated, but resources to modernise are usually hard to find. Like having removed wire mesh roofs on all big cat enclosures, needs enormous refurbishment of the enclosures to meet modern standards of housing and enrichment. Especially for the Persian leopard, who likes to climb trees, a roof can be considered a big interference of expressing natural behaviour.
An interesting experience is the walk-through nocturnal enclosure, which like anywhere else requires you to take time to adapt to the dark situation to see anything. But the knowledge that sloths are somewhere above you, makes you want to stop and stay for a while. On the one hand to see at least something in this darkness, and on the other hand to come into the pace of the sloth. At the time of my visit one of the female sloths carried a young with her.
The two white tigers are worth mentioning of course. They were the first in the BeNeLux. The Bengal tiger with a color aberration in its coat (white) and eyes (blue) is not well equiped for hunting in nature, because it lacks camouflage. Therefore it is merely impossible to sustain in the wild. And almost all white tigers are descendants from a lineage of the white tiger found in the jungle of Central India by the Maharadja of Rewa in 1951 (Source: website Amersfoort Zoo).
At almost the last enclosure of the signposted route you find the Geoffroy’s cat, of which the Zoo currently (2010) is coordinator of the European Endangered species Programme. As you might expect its enclosure looks nice. It is quite large and provides ample opportunities for the cat to show its natural behaviour, so it seems. But not a lot of this behaviour is known, because it is a shy cat. Right now in Amersfoort a study is ongoing on the enrichment needs of this cat. The Zoo has a breeding pair, but I am not aware of any successful breeding. Hopefully they will breed, because it is a delightful small South American cat, which existence is considered ‘near threatened’ and its population decreasing.
A moment of daily life at hamadryas baboon exhibit
Business as usual in the large hamadryas baboon troop, with the youngsters playing, some ongoing social interaction while others enjoying the warmth of the autumn sun and doing just nothing.
Feeding behaviour of hamadryas baboons
The ground dwelling hamadryas baboons have access to an enclosure that stimulates natural feeding behaviour. As you can see some prefer aquatic plants, while others enjoy foraging for food on the sandy banks.
Two elephant calves born in 2017
Yunha, the female elephant calf born 25 March 2017, is making herself comfortable on the sandy substrate of the 600 m2 indoor elephant enclosure. And she is doing a good job, which you can’t say of the efforts to spray sand on her back – this needs a little practice still. The footage also shows she likes her little playmate, Thabo, who was just two weeks old (born 25.09.2017) when I visited Amersfoort Zoo.
Sloth family in the nocturnal house
The recently born young two-toed sloth (28.09.2017) can be seen in this video. The footage is shot inside the nocturnal house so the quality is rather bad, but when you look carefully you can see the newborn moving around on its mother’s belly (the green arrow points at one of the baby sloth’s leg). After a while the father slowly joins the two, munching away on the nearby leaves.
Signage and information
It must be said up front – they have modernised the way information about animals is provided to the visitors. And of course I must be honest here, I am not so young any more, but I think I should be one of the targeted groups of visitors, still. I am keen on learning about the species’ conservation status, its scientific name, and whether or not it takes part in a captive breeding programme. But none of these relevant topics are provided in the Zoo-app, because that’s where you have to turn to to get any information on the animals on display. It’s absolutely modern, and you would expect that while people in daily life are constantly checking their smartphone it should be a no-brainer for people to do so in the Zoo as well. But it seems not to work that way, because I hardly saw anybody checking their phone while cruising the Zoo. Like me! I want to have it the easy way – a view at the enclosure and the information panel should give me the pleasure of seeing an interesting species in an animal-friendly environment, and good educational species specific information.
Is there nothing mentioned on the information panels at the enclosures then? Oh yes there is, but that is restricted to the absolute minimum. The brand new wooden information panels mentions the name and an artistic impression of the species on display, next to the names of the species’ native countries and the food it eat, and some icons that mean that more information is available in the smartphone app. The conservation status is mentioned but no reference is made to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, the globally accepted source of species’ conservation status based on dynamics in threats and population size. And everything is only available in Dutch, not even the species’ name is provided in English, let alone the scientific name. And this counts for the website as well. They really made an effort with these new wooden panels at all the enclosures, and I appreciate the uniformity, but as explained even with the smartphone app the information lacks absolute essential details.
Further to this there is no general information about the importance of biodiversity,and nature conservation, or the decline of natural habitats of most of the species on display.
It is obvious that the Zoo management put all their money on the smartphone app, so even a decent paper map is not provided any more. You’ll have to use the app, with a more or less interactive map, which is rather good I must say. On the website there’s only an outdated version of the Zoo map available. To give you a bit of an idea of the current situation I have made a screen print of the app map (see Zoo map 2017). Unfortunately there’s other outdated information provided on the website and the App. Information I think is rather relevant. They claim Amersfoort Zoo is coordinating the European Endangered species Programme (EEP) of the Geoffroy’s cat, but that is verifiable incorrect. Geoffroy’s cat EEP is listed by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) as being coordinated by Jihlava Zoo, Czech Republic. So, what more could be incorrect and outdated?
So, I am not very enthusiastic about the modern way of information provision, of which the means doesn’t seem to achieve the end, apart from the many gaps in essential information I found.
Still, the ‘miss nothing’ route is excellent. When you follow the numbered blue signs you are guided along all exhibits and species that are on display at the Zoo.
Remote feeder usage for enrichment
Amersfoort Zoo is the first Dutch zoo that has introduced a remote feeder (made by Feedpods™) to enrich the lives of their brown bears – August 2016. The use of this device makes the feeding behaviour of the bears more natural.
This feeding device can be programmed so that the animals can be fed at any time, and for convenience it can be operated remotely by phone. As the feeding happens unexpectedly with the zookeeper out of sight, the animals do not associate the zookeeper with the food and feeding which prohibit the development of begging for food. In addition it resembles the natural way meals are provided: not at fixed times.
The device used at Amersfoort Zoo is a large container filled with food that meets the animals’ nutrition requirements. Through a spinning mechanism, the food is flung into the enclosure randomly, forcing the animals to actively look for the food.
Video by Amersfoort Zoo (in Dutch):
Since the brown bears enjoy the feeding enrichment provided by the remote feeder, it has been installed at the chimpanzee enclosure as well. And in the near future they intend to install such a feeding system in the newly opened (July 2016) enclosure for wolves, called the ‘Forest’, too.
(Source: website Amersfoort Zoo; website Feedpods™)
Directions to Amersfoort Zoo
Barchman Wuytierslaan 224
From Amersfoort railway station bus line 70 will take you to the Zoo entrance within 5 minutes. Or you can walk, which will take about 20 minutes.
The Zoo is easy accessible by bicycle, with good parking facilities. You don’t have to worry about any kind of vehicles because there are cycle paths, both in and out of town. Bike rental available at the railway station.
Plan your journey here:
This map is a screen print of the map available in the Zoo’s App (accessed 8 October 2017). The App is interactive and touch screen, so the legend and other information is lost.
The Amersfoort Zoo website’s most recent map was the one of 2014 (accessed 22 October 2017).
Download the zoo map here.