Today it is going to be hot and humid, with temperatures predicted as high as 32 °C, and a few showers in the morning. Hot and steamy rainforest conditions, so to speak. I am already looking forward to having a cold beer at the Bahnhof Zoo restaurant & café that is conveniently located between the Zoo and the railway station. The beer is scheduled for the end of the day, of course .
Although the Zoo entrance is rather nondescript, the first impressions right after the entrance are different. A small path with on the right hand side a large pond – holding waterfowl and gibbon islands – leads to a point where you can see how grand the premises is. Large meadows in an undulating landscape appear and the prospect of some steep footpaths. Besides a zoo it is a park as well, that is for sure. Hopefully, the foliage will provide shelter from the rain in the morning and from the sun in the afternoon.
Although there are no flamingos right after the entrance, because there is simply no room for them, after turning left past the Zoo cafeteria the first enclosure I see holds flamingos – in an old-fashioned dull environment. Just behind the flamingo enclosure and slightly uphill there’s a nice small rose garden which adds to the first impression of the Zoo being a park and even a botanical garden too.
A few extra steps uphill you’ll find the okapi outdoor paddock, newly built in 2011. The two specimens of okapi are kept separate in the grassy outdoor paddock, while one okapi shares the largest part of the paddock with a yellow-backed duiker. It’s a nice enclosure – with trees, rocks at some spots where the ground is sloping down – that allows wandering around and exploratory behaviour. The new indoors enclosure is a stable that contains some African features (ornaments) to help visitors make the connection between the species they see and its geographical origin. The stable is large enough to give prolonged shelter from harsh winter conditions in western Germany.
Across the okapi and bordering the outer perimeter of the Zoo grounds an older enclosure contains cheetah. It has got a brick wall which is part of the Zoo’s outer fence and on the public’s side a wire mesh fence. It’s a rectangular elongated enclosure full of trees, providing the animals good shelter. It is not a bad exhibit, but nowadays you see much larger enclosure for cheetah with feeding enrichment equipment.
Following the footpath the next exhibit is an aviary with European black vultures and harpy eagle. I would call these aviaries just very large cage. It is exactly what I do not like about many aviaries in zoos, too small for the bird to express its basic behaviour – flying!
A bit further there’s a pool with black-footed penguin (Spheniscus demersus). The penguins have access to shelters which are hidden from the public. Which is the complete opposite of the close encounter possibilities at this exhibit. The windows around the pool are not very high. So, tall persons and children that are picked up can reach above the window at the penguins and touch them while they drift along on the water.
Heading for the polar bears I first come across the sea lion pool which is constructed for having shows, although there is no tribune or other kind of stand. The California sea lion pup, born on 08.06.2013 and less than two months old, is out in the pool and afraid of nobody (see ). The otter enclosure, situated in between the sea lion pool and the polar bear enclosure, is a small exhibit with nice enrichment features for the very loud and lively Asian small-clawed otters. There are only two otters, which is a shame because this species of otter is very social and lives often in large groups of up to fifteen individuals. Nevertheless, they do breed the otters. This means that the animals must be thriving because more often than not reproduction is impaired when animals are kept in conditions unfit for them.
The two polar bear outdoor enclosures are freely accessible for mother Vilma and her daughter Anori, born 03.01.2012. The polar landscape for seals and polar bears was the first outdoor exhibit built at Wuppertal Zoo in the beginning of the 20th century, already according the Hagenbeck bar-less principles. The large outdoor exhibit consists of various multilevel concrete platforms and a large pool, with plenty of viewing opportunities including a window for underwater viewing. The other outdoor exhibit is very small and would not be fit for purpose if there not had been an alternative. The polar bears are clearly enjoying the pool and the enrichment that is provided. And let’s be honest, the pool is the best place on a hot summer’s day!
Next door the facilities for king penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) and gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua) are situated. The first successful breeding of gentoo penguins in a German zoo took place in the Zoo’s old penguin enclosure in 1975. The new indoor exhibit (2009), one of the largest and most modern in Europe, is rather special with its different viewing perspectives. From a 15-meter-long acrylic glass tunnel you can see the penguins speed by while swimming. Unfortunately, due to the temperature difference there is a lot of condensation on the glass which blocks the view. This will not be a problem in colder days I expect. When you get to ground level again you can walk around the enclosure and have sight on the penguins from various angles because there are glass panes all around.
From the modern and surprising penguin exhibit I walk to the vivarium building, which is merely a display of species. It is a big step back in time, when zoos just focussed on showing as much species as possible. This aquarium and vivarium house only provides the name of the species on display. No additional information is provided – none whatsoever – therefore it lacks to provide educational value. While in general the information panels are good sources of information here at Wuppertal Zoo.
Via the rocky environment for the Siberian ibex (Capra ibex sibirica) I walk to the Small Cats House, which holds the Zoo’s flagship species – the black-footed cat. But not before I have a look at the meerkats, one of the children’s favourite in many zoos. At Wuppertal the meerkat (Suricata suricatta), is housed in such a way that it really becomes redundant to have it on display in my opinion. First of all, I think that a zoo should focus on species that are endangered – which the meerkat is not. Nevertheless, I do understand the value of keeping this species. They are easy and cheap to keep in captivity, and when exhibit design is such that close encounters are realised it could make a visit to the zoo unforgettable for children. Well, this is where the Zoo’s enclosure for the meerkats is too middle of the road I believe. It is an enclosure not even resembling the species’ regular habitat, the southern Africa desert, and it lacks close encounter opportunities.
The Small Cats House (Kleinkatzenhaus) is another disappointment. Not only because it is an old-fashioned display of cats in a row of unattractive outdoor enclosures which all are connected with an indoor cage, but also because there are no black-footed cats to be seen. The Zoo has quite a reputation breeding the black-footed cats (see ), and at Wuppertal both the global and European breeding programmes for this species are coordinated. The black-footed cats have been promoting the Zoo over the last decades. In 1975 the first pair of black-footed cats came to Wuppertal. None of the other animals at the Zoo have been so successfully bred as these small and very rare wild cats from the arid regions of southern Africa. Since 1975, over 145 kittens were born in 78 litters at Wuppertal Zoo. It could well be that they keep the black-footed cats off-exhibit. It seems to be a cat that is not very attractive for visitors because they do not show themselves often. Fortunately, the sand cat (Felis maragarita), Geoffroy’s cat (Leopardus geoffroyi) and Arabian wildcat (Felis silvestris gordoni) do show themselves, and are obviously less shy.
Next door to the small cats the snow leopard and Siberian lynx (Lynx lynx wrangeli) can be found. These are not very large enclosures, but they are sufficiently enriched.
The last exhibit before I get to the Zoo’s four hectares extension of 2007 is the Big Cats House (Grosskatzenhaus). It has old-fashioned feline enclosures which they tried to adjust to modern standards of zookeeping. This means that they combined several enclosures to enlarge the space available for the three feline species they keep here – Temminck’s cat, Indian Leopard (Panthera pardus fusca) and clouded leopard (cub born on 05.06.2013). Although all enclosures have interconnected outdoor and indoor facilities, the exhibits remain small. Fortunately, there are plenty of enrichment features such as ropes, trunks, elevated platforms and scratching poles. Nevertheless the indoor enclosures do not look very attractive with their tiled walls, but they are easy to clean of course.
The contrast with the exhibits that follow couldn’t be bigger. This newer part of the Zoo, the 2007 extension, is designed according state-of-the-art principles for keeping large predators in captivity. The Amur tigers are housed in two adjacent enclosures. One with a tigress and last year’s cubs (4 cubs born February 2012). The other one has got one male tiger on display. I assume the male that sired the cubs. The enclosure with the male is really beautiful with a huge water-filled moat and many sheltered spots. It is situated uphill and seems to comprise the original forest features of this area (see ).
The African lions’ exhibit is even more impressive. This is a huge savannah-like paddock of about 1 hectare comprising three male lions. Visitors are provided interesting and surprising views on the enclosure, for example through large observation windows, over watering holes from the watchtower, or from the observation cave in the middle of the lion enclosure. The size of the enclosure is such that even from the watchtower I couldn’t capture the enclosure in one shot.
I have read that some people think it is a waste of space to keep three lions in such a large area, because they could keep more species in the same area when they reduce the space for each of them. But I believe those people are forgetting the mission zoos have committed themselves to regarding keeping animals in confinement. It is not about number of species on display but about the quality of the environment in which they are displayed. And the quality relates above all to education and conservation when you ask me, and less to entertainment.
For instance, educating people about animals is showing them in an environment that allows the animals to express their natural behaviour. For large predators this means large areas and suitable enrichment. Furthermore, it is about conservation. Although there are not many examples yet of large predators born in captivity that are returned in the wild, it is the ultimate conservation effort for all endangered species, even large felids. And to facilitate the necessary habituation from captivity to freedom in the wild you shouldn’t start in a small enclosure, but think big. Even though, this could lead to enclosures that will look ‘empty’. Which is unattractive because people are not coming to the zoo to look at an ‘empty’ enclosure. This could be solved to present one or two specimens in fit-for-purpose enclosures that provide enough viewing opportunities while at the same time the zoo has for instance off-exhibit large rehabilitation enclosures. Well, anyway I congratulate Wuppertal Zoo with their magnificent lion enclosure. By the way the lions are not shying away from the viewing areas.
Walking back from the marvellous lion exhibit towards the original zoo grounds I pass the farmstead with several fields for Asian species – kiang or Tibetan wild ass, Père David’s deer, and Takin. These are not very interesting as such, but the open top forest enclosure on the other side is, with red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis) en white-naped crane (Grus vipio). I don’t like birds to be pinioned, like these cranes are and the flamingos near the entrance, but the sheer size of the crane enclosure is impressive. I do understand that the only way to keep birds inside an open top enclosure is by making it physically impossible for them to fly. But this way you make the bird fit for the enclosure, while you should make the enclosure fit for the bird. Unfortunately, most zoos still opt for pinioning.
Around the corner from the cranes there’s an amazingly small enclosure for Canadian wolves. It’s been built in 1973, and has got a very deep moat at the visitor’s side including additional electrical wire to keep the animal from entering the moat. Much more fit-for-purpose is the enclosure for the two Kodiak bears (Ursus arctos middendorffi) which borders the wolves’ enclosure. The bear exhibit looks just like a fenced off part of the original forested area, but it has been completely refurbished in 2004. During which the pool has been moved to ensure a better view for the visitors. Furthermore, they added a small waterfall.
From the bears I move on to the African elephants. Meanwhile I am totally lost regarding the grouping of the animal collection of the Zoo. It seems to me that they started with a certain grouping way back at the end of the 19th century, and just haphazardly and opportunistically extended and distributed their collection. As if they never had the time and possibility to rethink and revisit the total concept.
So, in 1995 the new enclosure for African elephants was opened near the forest café (Waldschänke) and the kids playground. At the time it was the Zoo’s largest enclosure (3000 m2 outdoors and 1340 m2 indoors) and one of the world’s most modern elephant enclosures. It is situated uphill with slightly sloping grounds. It provides the herd of nine African Elephants a comfortable home and the possibility of bathing in a large pool every day. Tusker the bull of the herd has sired all newborns in Wuppertal Zoo, the latest born on 13.05.2013.
Proof of the opportunistically approach of the animal collection’s distribution on the site is the other cheetah enclosure I would say. It is situated near the forest café, therefore far from the other cheetah enclosure. This exhibit is more open and therefore more savannah-like, but small, while at the same time it also lacks feeding enrichment equipment.
This area of the Zoo also contains the primate section, with a Monkey House (Affenhaus) and an Ape House (Menschenaffenhaus). The building for the monkeys reflects the Zoo’s past. Originally it stems from 1927 and it was refurbished in 1985. But another upgrade was done in 2006, together with the establishment of a nice outdoor enclosure for the drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus). The enrichment is mostly artificial (ropes, tree trunks), which does not look nice but could cover the need of the animals for sure. Inside the Monkey House all exhibits have the same interior design with tiled walls, coated concrete floors and enrichment features. All have rather low ceilings except for the Dusky leaf monkey. The breeding track record seems good with newborn lion-tailed macaques in 2012 and 2013, and newborn dusky leaf monkey (Presbytis obscurus) in June 2013.
Wuppertal Zoo keeps gorillas, bonobos, orangutans and chimpanzees as representatives of man’s closest relative, the non-human primates or apes. A troop of five western lowland gorillas, three Bornean orangutans, six bonobos and unfortunately only two chimpanzees. Epulu and Kitoto the chimps live in a poor social environment, as these apes live in larger groups in the wild. But to enrich this environment the Zoo does some little experimenting, for instance they let Epulu explore its artistic competencies. There’s an exposition of photographs of paintings made by Epulu inside the Ape House, which even are for sale. All indoor enclosures have the same construction and interior design with coated concrete walls and floors, an additional platform at the wall, trunks, ropes, ladders, and the inevitable straw and wood shavings on the floor. The outdoor exhibit for the apes has been built recently, in 2003. The one for the orangutans is impressive, with a stream, lots and lots of vegetation, hammocks, shelters and ropes. Moreover, works are ongoing for another outdoor exhibit. It is not explained, but it could be that for the moment the apes use the outdoor exhibit by rotation.
Before making my way to the exit I decide to pay another visit to one of the most extraordinary exhibit, the meadow with a mix of species from Patagonia – mara, guanaco and Darwin’s rhea. This exhibit deserves to be mentioned, not because of the species (none of them are endangered at the moment), but because of the enormous size and that it is a mixed-species exhibit. As it turns out Wuppertal Zoo has not developed many mixed-species enclosures yet. Though not always easy to achieve, it greatly enriches the lives of the animals and therefore it is a pity the Zoo has not gone this avenue yet.
Then it is time for the beer I promised myself this morning. So, my final enclosure is the large pond, or small lake if you like, with the gibbon islands near the entrance/exit. In former days the lake was used for canoeing in summer and ice skating in winter. The islands for the white-handed gibbons (Hylobates lar) exist since 1981 and were already very modern in these days. The trees on the largest island allow the arboreal gibbons to swing from branch to branch. Unfortunately, their indoor enclosure is pathetically small with almost no possibilities to climb and swing. That will be no fun during a long and harsh winter.