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Jan Frans Loos, alder­man of Antwerp (and to become Mayor from 1848 to 1863), vis­ited Ams­ter­dam Zoo dur­ing a busi­ness trip in 1840. His brother Jozef was liv­ing in Ams­ter­dam, and together they owned the famous trans­port com­pany Van Gend & Loos, being the chil­dren of the leg­endary founders of this com­pany, Jan Van Gend en Maria Loos. Dur­ing the 1840 visit to Ams­ter­dam it all started, as Loos decided Antwerp should have its own zoo­log­i­cal park, inspired by Natura Artis Mag­is­tra (Ams­ter­dam Zoo). As soon as he found a busi­ness part­ner to help him in this chal­lenge things started to shape. In the begin­ning the Zoo was noth­ing more than the col­lec­tion of stuffed ani­mals of his part­ner Jacques Kets, a renowned taxi­der­mist. The City of Antwerp wanted to build army bar­racks at the loca­tion of Kets’ house and made him an offer to house his ‘cab­i­net of nat­ural curiosi­ties’, includ­ing some trop­i­cal ani­mals, in the Zoo to be built. This was a good deal and thus became Loos and Kets part­ners with Kets as the first direc­tor, appointed for life. It was not unusual at the time to have a zoo­log­i­cal col­lec­tion that con­sisted mostly of dead stuffed animals.

A com­mit­tee was estab­lished on 19 July 1841 for the for­ma­tion of a Zoo­log­i­cal Soci­ety of Antwerp, though they lacked the grounds to house a sub­stan­tial num­ber of liv­ing ani­mals. It was not until March 1843 before the com­mit­tee bought a piece of land of approx­i­mately 1.5 ha, next to the recently built wooden rail­way sta­tion and just out­side the city walls. Soon, 21 July 1843, the Zoo offi­cially opened to the pub­lic. There was not a lot to see at the time, a few goats and horses, and the stuffed ani­mals of course. More exotic ani­mals would arrive in the years that fol­lowed. In 1844, when the Soci­ety became ‘Royal’, the com­plete col­lec­tion is kept in one build­ing, a museum for nat­ural his­tory includ­ing cages for preda­tors. It housed a few pri­mates, birds and snakes along with the taxi­der­mal col­lec­tion. The first chim­panzee arrived in 1847.

Although opened to the pub­lic not every­body was able to visit, because the entrance fee was steep and the upper classes did not want to min­gle with the ordi­nary peo­ple. Like many other zoos at the time, Antwerp Zoo was a place for peo­ple to see and to be seen. In 1862, for the first time, they started to invite schools to the grounds and they low­ered the price of a ticket on two Sun­days to allow ordi­nary peo­ple to enter the Zoo. But it took until after the first World War before the Zoo opened the gates to all, at all times.

With the har­bour at its doorstep the Soci­ety tried to expand the col­lec­tion of exotic ani­mals by ask­ing shipown­ers to take home with them (spe­cific) ani­mals from the coun­tries they vis­ited. They asked diplo­mats the same ques­tion, suc­cess­fully. How­ever, the most impor­tant source was the inter­na­tional ani­mal trade busi­ness, which was at its peak dur­ing the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tury.
To increase the income the Zoo started sell­ing the results of their breed­ing efforts with the hip­popota­muses cou­ple as their major asset. In the 1870s the rev­enue of these sales increased to over 50 per­cent of their total income. These rev­enues were invested in new build­ings and ani­mals, and used for pur­chas­ing sur­round­ing houses and kitchen gar­dens, lead­ing to a steady growth of the Zoo to 11 ha. In 1856 the Egypt­ian tem­ple for ele­phants, giraffes and zebras was built, in 1867 the Indian tem­ple for the antilopes, in 1870 a palace for the preda­tors, and in 1885 the Moor­ish tem­ple for the ostriches. These were all typ­i­cal for Euro­pean zoo design at the time. This ‘exotic style’ of zoo build­ing had an excel­lent and promi­nent rep­re­sen­ta­tive with the Egypt­ian tem­ple, which got dec­o­rated with paint­ings and hiero­glyphs in 1860 when the archi­tect, Charles Ser­vais, con­vinced the Soci­ety coun­cil that this would make the tem­ple more sci­en­tific accu­rate. The tem­ple as an unique and impres­sive exotic build­ing was imi­tated by many zoos at the time. In Antwerp the Egypt­ian tem­ple (ele­phants and giraffes) and the Moor­ish tem­ple (okapis) are still in use nowa­days. The first liv­ing okapi in cap­tiv­ity (named Buta from Bel­gian colony Congo) was exhib­ited in Antwerp Zoo in 1919!

But as the city of Antwerp started to grow in the late 19th cen­tury and new houses appeared around the Zoo, fur­ther expan­sion of the Zoo was not pos­si­ble. The Zoo got encap­su­lated by the grow­ing city. Already in 1893 the first plan was devel­oped to move the entire zoo, fol­lowed by sev­eral other plans — includ­ing one of Le Cor­busier wherein the new Zoo was sched­uled in a new part of the city on the left bank of the river Schelde. All plans were turned down by the city coun­cil and dis­ap­peared into the drawer. Mean­while the Zoo­log­i­cal Soci­ety thought of expan­sion in terms of a sec­ond zoo. This led in 1956 to the pur­chase of an estate near Meche­len with a small cas­tle, Planck­endael. The zoo in Planck­endael was opened to the pub­lic in 1960 and had enclo­sures for bison, camel, moose, anti­lope and cranes.

After a pros­per­ous period with some minor set­backs – a tiger had to be shot when it escaped its trans­port cage in 1868, the pri­mates build­ing burned down in 1881, and a keeper was killed by a rhi­noc­eros in 1885 – the Zoo suf­fered great losses dur­ing both World Wars. Both times the Zoo decided to kill ani­mals when Antwerp was under siege, as destruc­tion of build­ings by bomb­ing was too high a risk when large preda­tors would escape. Another rea­son was ani­mal wel­fare in the period of short­ages. And food short­age led to butcher­ing of the hoofed ani­mals. In the win­ter of 1940 dur­ing WW II many valu­able ani­mals froze to death, such as an okapi, ele­phant and hip­popota­mus. The roof of the Egypt­ian tem­ple col­lapsed. Both times the Zoo had to be built from scratch with per­se­ver­ance, gen­eros­ity and solidarity.

The period after WW II is iden­ti­fied by a dif­fer­ent atti­tude of the pub­lic, because they have more money to spend, more leisure time and more inter­est in ani­mals and nature. The Zoo evolves, like many other zoos, and changes its objec­tives towards more sci­en­tific research, ani­mal wel­fare and nature con­ser­va­tion. Breed­ing pro­grammes are started (Congo pea­cock and okapi), and in 1946 the Royal Zoo­log­i­cal Soci­ety of Antwerp (RZSA) is co-​founder of the Inter­na­tional Union of Direc­tors of Zoo­log­i­cal Gar­dens, now the World Asso­ci­a­tion of Zoos and Aquar­i­ums. The great apes house is built (1958, ren­o­vated in 1989), as well as the Noc­turama (1968), a new rep­tile house (1973) and a new mon­key house (1978). For all these changes addi­tional investe­ments had to be made. Money that was not read­ily avail­able, so the vis­i­tor num­bers had to increase. This was the time that the Zoo resorted to adver­tis­ing cam­paigns and sales of by-​products. Though these were suc­cess­ful, the oil-​crisis in the 1970s was a major set­back with a 20-​year after­math. The RZSA was run­ning the Zoo as a pri­vate com­pany, but the new direc­tor Daman recog­nised in 1983 that a munic­i­pal sub­sidy was inevitable for the Zoo to sur­vive in the long term. For­tu­nately, he man­aged to get a munic­i­pal sub­sidy which in 2001 was sup­ple­mented with sub­sidy from the Flem­ish gov­er­ment. Together with increas­ing vis­i­tor num­bers and the Zoo listed as a his­tor­i­cal mon­u­ment, which deliver finances for the main­te­nance of the old build­ings, this allows for progress and mod­erni­sa­tion that is required.

The mas­ter­plan that was devel­oped in the 1990s showed how Antwerp Zoo was fol­low­ing new opin­ions about zoo hus­bandry and man­age­ment. It was sched­uled to turn the Zoo into four macro-​habitats — a trop­i­cal rain­for­est, a swamp area, a savan­nah, a polar zone – and a dis­cov­ery cen­tre. In the dif­fer­ent habi­tats the ani­mals should be housed together, sep­a­rated by nat­ural bor­ders. Though this bar­less con­cept was not new, as it was intro­duced for the first time in Ham­burg Zoo in the early 20th cen­tury, it meant quite a change in Antwerp. Mixed species exhibits were rare in the Zoo. Unfor­tu­nately, new finan­cial prob­lems appeared in 1996, because enor­mous works on the rail­way sta­tion hin­dered the reach­a­bil­ity by pub­lic trans­port. There­fore, only the pen­guins ben­e­fited from the mas­ter­plan with the build­ing of the Antarc­tic house (Vries­land, 1997) and the ele­phants with the com­ple­tion of the first part of the savan­nah habi­tat (olifan­ten­perk, 1999), which triples the size of their orig­i­nal out­door enclo­sure. As men­tioned ear­lier the Flem­ish gov­ern­ment in 2001 finan­cially appre­ci­ated the rel­e­vance of a mod­ern zoo in Antwerp, for tourism and as a cen­tre for knowl­edge, research and edu­ca­tion on nature con­ser­va­tion. This gave a new boost to the effec­tu­a­tion of the mas­ter­plan. The swamp habi­tat was finalised around 2003, hous­ing pel­i­cans and marsh birds, and bring­ing relief for the hip­popota­muses who now could enjoy a nice out­doors with a rivulet, phys­i­cally but not vis­i­bly sep­a­rated from the tapirs. In 2006 a south-​american habi­tat enclo­sure for spec­ta­cled bears and coatis was com­pleted. Amaz­ingly, they even man­aged to expand with 1.5 ha in 2008 by demol­ish­ing large parts of an adja­cent street.

While in 2011 the new lion enclo­sure was deliv­ered and the ren­o­va­tion of the seal enclo­sure started as part of the cur­rent mas­ter­plan, a new ambi­tious strate­gic mas­ter­plan launches. A fun­da­men­tal meta­mor­pho­sis is fore­seen before 2020: with a com­plete makeover for the entrance; a brand new restau­rant in the hoofed ani­mals build­ing; a trans­fer of the Cape buf­falo and zebra close to the giraffes; the great apes will get a new build­ing with a ter­race; same counts for the big cats; the Aquafo­rum of the sea lions, the Noc­turama, the bird­house, the Antarc­tic house, the Aquar­ium and the Egypt­ian tem­ple will be ren­o­vated. At a price of about 70 mil­lion euro Antwerp Zoo will be made future proof.

(Sources: web­site Antwerp Zoo; De Tuin van het Leven by Rudy van Eysendeyk and Roland Van Boxs­taele; Zoo and Aquar­ium his­tory by Ver­non N. Kisling, jr.)

For infor­ma­tion about Antwerp Zoo’s his­tory in pic­tures click here

Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map

Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.


about zoos and their mis­sion regard­ing breed­ing endan­gered species, nature con­ser­va­tion, bio­di­ver­sity and edu­ca­tion, which of course relates to the evo­lu­tion of species.
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