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.)