Bristol Zoo opened its gates to the public in July 1836, which makes it one of the oldest zoos of Britain, and of the world. But unlike other ‘ancient’ zoos it does not have to take care of many listed buildings. Therefore, the Zoo could modernise according new ideas on enclosure design without too many barriers other than money of course.
It is a small city Zoo, which has limited space at its disposal. The ever so inevitable flamingos are kept in a pond just opposite the entrance. With on the right the enclosure for variegated or brown spider monkeys (Ateles hybridus). These new world monkeys are provided with an outdoor enclosure with wire mesh fences and rooftop, while glass window panes on public level enhance viewing experience and prevent physical contact. The animals are fairly exposed to the public in this enclosure unless they go inside of course. Lots of climbing enrichment with ropes and tree trunks. The grounds are multilevel with some rocks.
Then turning left you can walk along a wide and straight lane, the Top Terrace, which provide the nostalgic feel of the old days when the upper (middle) class came to the Zoo to see and be seen. Although Bristol Zoo is small in size, the way they designed the place with big lawns right from the Top Terrace and lakes in the centre of the garden gives it a nice spacious feel.
When you keep left you arrive at the Asian lions enclosure. The four lions – male, female and two cubs born Christmas Eve 2010 – occupy two adjacent and connected exhibits with various bedding materials (grass, rocks, wood chip, soil and sand), trees and shrubs. The enclosure of 50 by 20 meters is further enriched with a small waterfall, and several high level resting platforms, while it allows the lions to hide from the public easily. New enrichment features can be introduced in one of the exhibits without disturbing the environment of the adjacent exhibit. Hooks and chains on pulleys are available to hang meat or herbs in a sack. The public is separated from the animals by old-fashioned fences and viewing windows. When compared to other, more modern and larger, zoological gardens this lion enclosure doesn’t seem to meet state-of-the-art requirements, e.g. space, although the Zoo invests in many enrichment features. Nevertheless, the track record regarding breeding results is good which indicates there is normal reproduction behaviour. Although keeping lions (or tigers) in such a small zoo seems not appropriate – I have seen tigers roam around on 3 hectares in ‘Le Parc des Félins’, France – lions are a major public attraction. And more public means more money, and more opportunities for conservation efforts.
Nextdoor, built against Twilight World the kea aviary houses this beautiful and charismatic, but endangered mountain-dwelling parrot from New Zealand. Kea (Nestor notabilis) are famous for being playful and intelligent but notorious for their destructive behaviour. They destroy windscreen wipers and door rubbers of cars, and raide picnic tables for instance. Though the interior partly resembles its original habitat of the New Zealand alps, the aviary lacks a car for the bird to tear apart.
Twilight World, the former Ape House, is situated next to the lion enclosure along the outer edge of the garden. It comprises nocturnal species from different continents, such as the aye aye, grey mouse lemur and the giant jumping rat from Madagascar, the Linné’s two-toed sloth and grey-legged douroucouli from South America, and surprisingly the sand cat which can be found through the deserts of northern Africa and southwest and central Asia. As the sand cat is the only felid found primarily in true desert, it enjoys the winter sun during the day, and to avoid the high temperatures during the hot season it becomes crepuscular and nocturnal again. In fact, in many zoos around the world cats are not kept in nocturnal houses, but in regular exhibits. For instance during my 2011 tour along zoos in South England I found the sand cats at Marwell Wildlife and Rare Species Conservation Centre (unfortunately closed since 2012) kept in regular daylight exhibits. Nocturnal houses are not my favourite, because I never manage to adapt to the darkness and see much of the animals and exhibits. In Twilight World they use spot lights to illuminate the information panels, which is a good idea from educational point of view. Unfortunately, about 20% of these spot lights were broken.
Bristol Zoo is engaged with several other zoos worldwide – Taronga Zoo, Melbourne Zoo and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo to name a few – in an ambitious project. They have taken on the challenge to save amphibians from global extinction (see ). The AmphiPod, an elongated self contained detachable unit, opened on 3 June 2010. This high-tech facility allows Bristol Zoo to create the perfect conditions to breed two of the world’s most endangered frog species — lemur leaf frogs (Hylomantis lemur) and golden mantella frogs (Mantella aurantiaca). Both species are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™. During the first year the golden mantella frogs produced more than 500 offspring, and over 300 of them are now kept in other zoos and organisations in the UK. The lemur leaf frogs are much trickier to breed and have produced 56 offspring in AmphiPod’s first year of existence.
In addition the Zoo tries to save another small and less notable species, the Partula faba snail – a tree snail from South Pacific islands – which is extinct in the wild (Raiatea in French Polynesia). These can be found in Bug World, which is situated on the upper level of the building that also houses the Coral Café downstairs.
The terrace in front of the Coral Café has a large canopy which was very convenient during the rain shower at noon. It was a busy day at the Zoo, so a large crowd sought shelter under the canopy and in the Café. It didn’t quite fit.
From the Coral Café it is a few steps to enter Monkey World. The indoor enclosures of the black howler monkey, lion-tailed macaque and De Brazza’s monkey have similar features with painted green concrete walls and wood chip bedding, but not much climbing enrichment. The howler monkeys share the exhibit with yellow armadillo. All monkeys have access to excellent outdoor facilities with tree trunks, long grass, shrubs, rough vegetation and rocks. But the animals are all very exposed to the public, indoors as well as outdoors. The De Brazza’s monkeys are privileged, because they have the choice of mixing with the gorillas on Gorilla Island. This resembles the natural situation, as both species are found in the same rainforest habitat in West Africa.
The six western lowland gorillas, the other major public attraction besides the lions, have indoor enclosures at their disposal with concrete floors and walls, and a bit of saw dust on the floor. The enrichment consists of reinforced iron and ropes on different levels. The silverback is born in 1983. He sired some babies, but the last one born at Bristol Zoo was in December 2006. Their outdoor enclosure – Gorilla Island – is, as you may expect, surrounded by a moat filled with water and additional electrical wire to keep the gorillas on the island. The island itself is partly overgrown with shrubs, trees, grass and herbs where the gorillas can wander around and look for tasty leaves and branches. A wooden scaffolding with many ropes provide additional climbing enrichment.
Close to the gorillas the only three larger ungulates can be found: the okapi, the pygmy hippo and the Brazil tapir. This has not always been the case. In former days elephants and giraffes were part of the animal collection, but wisely the decision has been made to move those extremely large animals elsewhere and settle for other smaller species. Species that, considering the available space at Bristol Zoo and new standards for enclosure design, are more suitable to provide fit-for-purpose exhibits. So, the old elephant and giraffe house has been turned into a gorilla and okapi house. The three okapi have their own separate small meadow outside, while inside (the former giraffe enclosure) the walls have cushions and a jungle painted on them.
The neighbouring pygmy hippos are better off I would say. Their indoors is more or less just a pool with a low ceiling and vegetation which gives it a nice touch. Outside, the hippos have got a pool as well, although small, in addition to a large area to roam around.
The lemur walk-through, which is situated behind Monkey Jungle, offers close encounters with ring-tailed lemurs and mongoose lemurs (Eulemur mongoz). I only spotted two specimens of the latter species (mother and son), which is one of only two species of lemur found on the islands surrounding Madagascar. The exhibit is nice, perhaps a bit small, with rocks, trees (including palm trees!), and much foliage.
And then I was in for a big surprise a few steps away from the lemurs, the Seal & Penguin Coasts exhibit. As conservation of genetic diversity is – and should be – one of the main goals of zoos, I am not in favour of keeping species that are not endangered. Therefore, most seals including the species at Bristol Zoo – the South American fur seal – do not require to be kept in a zoo and will be better off in the wild. Most of the seal species that are not endangered and listed as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ show an increasing population size as a trend, by the way. But I have to admit, seals are fun to watch. Moreover, the Zoo created a very interesting exhibit with a marine habitat and two different enclosures. The walk-through aviary with African penguins, Inca tern and common eider duck, has nice features with its large pond and rock piles. Most appealing is the size of the enclosure, because this allows the Inca tern to fly around. From the elevated boardwalk the visitor has excellent view at the animals. Continuing the visit in the adjacent fur seal enclosure, where until 1992 polar bears were kept, is a great experience. The diversity of what is offered to the seals and the visitor is appealing. There’s a device that generates artificial waves, and together with the rocks, sea weed and tunnel for underwater viewing the marine ‘feel’ is complete (see ). The tunnel is also a nice way to shelter from the rain.
The several monkey islands in the lake harbour primate species from different continents: agile gibbons, squirrel monkeys, saki monkeys and red ruffed lemurs. The islands, though small, are a good example of the modern way zoos have these primates on display. The lush vegetation resembles the jungle and the enrichment to support climbing looks sufficient. The Lac Alaotra gentle lemur (Hapalemur griseus alaotrensis) of Bristol Zoo take part in the EEP (European Endangered species Programme) and is one of the most endangered species of lemur in their native habitat, Madagascar. Both their indoor and outdoor enclosure are accessible for observation and outside it is crammed with vegetation and looks great. But strangely, the exhibits are a bit tucked away behind the enclosure for the North American river otter.
As you may expect in this small zoo the majority of the animal collection consists of small species. The collection is grouped according habitat similarities in different geographical locations, except Zona Brazil where several species from just the Brazil region can be found. Of the two major public attraction, the Asian lions and the gorillas, the lions deserve a larger enclosure in my humble opinion. All in all, it is easy to enjoy the visit to Bristol Zoo, where much information is provided about their conservation efforts, ex-situ as well as in-situ. And I suppose that the children’s entertainment and play areas are serving their purpose, including the Activity Centre (for face painting and much more), Explorers’s Creek, ZooRopia and the lorikeet feeding in the walk-through aviary in the centre of the Zoo.
Finally, it is noteworthy to mention that Bristol Zoo’s (endangered) primates collection is impressive.