Berlin Zoo is the oldest zoo in Germany, with a unique history. It is also the most species-rich in the world and the most-visited zoo in Europe. The 86-acre site next to the Tiergarten park has an abundance of trees and greenery; the animal houses are architectural gems and the enclosures are generous and well-kept. Famous inmates like Knut, the polar bear and Bao Bao the giant panda have contributed to the zoo’s international profile. In the 1980s, my children loved going to the Berlin Zoo and even had the opportunity to meet two baby tigers.
Cuddly baby tigers
The Antelope House
The Berlin Zoologischer Garten, to give it its full name, owes its existence to King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia who was a passionate animal-lover. Together with his first wife, Louise, he established an impressive menagerie on the romantic Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island) on the Havel river and opened it to the public. After he died in 1840, his son, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, was happy to gift this private zoo to the people of Berlin and in 1844, after three years of construction, the Berlin Zoo opened on its current site. Two great Berliners, the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and landscape gardener Peter Joseph Lenné were key players in the realisation of this project.
Zoo entrance in 1960
In 1869, Dr Heinrich Bodinus, director of the Cologne Zoological Garden, took on the management of the Berlin Zoo and until his death in 1884, he added many more species and built new exotic animal houses. Ludwig Heck, also from the Cologne Zoo, took over from 1881 when he was only 28 years old and was Director of the Berlin Zoo until 1931. These were golden years which saw the construction of the beautiful Elephant Gate entrance on Budapester Strasse and many more animal houses, including the stunning aquarium in 1913. In 1932 Heck passed the baton to his son, Dr Lutz Heck, and the zoo park was modernised again, with outdoor enclosures using natural stone. However, Heck Junior was a Nazi sympathiser who used forced labour as workers.
A memorial bust to Dr Lutz Heck and explanation of his political leanings
The fabulous Aquarium
By 1939, the Berlin Zoo boasted over 4,000 animals, belonging to 1,400 species. Only 91 animals survived the war, including the popular hippo, Knautschke, the elephant bull Siam and the chimpanzee, Suse. The bombing in 1943 and 1944 more or less destroyed the entire zoo and there are many apocryphal stories about what happened to the thousands of animals during the bombing. Elephants and Tigers were said be roaming the streets, with snakes and crocodiles hiding in dark corners. In fact, most of the animals died, but it is true that some of their meat was used to feed the starving Berliners. If you follow this link, you can read more about the zoo’s wartime story.
Elephant gate after bombing
Elephant Gate today
As the first female zoo director in Germany, Dr Katharina Heinroth took on the task of the rebuilding the destroyed zoo from the rubble and was able to build something better out of its tragedy. There was much reconstruction, but innovation was also born out of devastation. The zoo that emerged from the chaos was more progressive and mirrored the real habitats of the animals.
Berlin Zoo’s full name is the Berlin Zoologischer Garten – the same as the station opposite its ‘Lion’ entrance gates (Löwentor). During the city’s division from 1949 until 1989, the Zoo was stranded in West Berlin and its eponymous station served as the main transportation hub of West Berlin. At this point several U-Bahn and S-Bahn lines of city public transport intersected. The station also served as a starting point of long distance trains, and the city’s biggest bus terminal is still there. Its pop-culture prominence started in the 1970s when the area around the station became a sordid gathering place for teenage drug addicts and prostitutes. These days it is well-known for its Currywurst stand.
Curry 36 at Bahnhof Zoo
In 1955, the GDR opened its ‘own zoo’, the ‘Tierpark’ (Animal Park), in Friedrichsfelde, East Berlin, which at 400 acres is the largest landscaped zoo in Europe. This means that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is a choice of two excellent zoos in the German capital. But there is something extra special about the Zoologischer Garten in the city centre. My recent visit was in glorious autumn weather. The zoo park couldn’t have looked better. There were no pacing animals in small spaces and Giant Pandas, Jiao Qing and Meng Meng looked very content exploring the undergrowth. The environment is as natural as possible with plenty of vegetation, rock, stone and water in evidence. We mainly stayed outside in the sunshine and a favourite enclosure was an aviary for sea birds where visitors can sit in a typical North German beach chair by the lapping water. The café facilities were excellent too, although they were not being tested to full capacity early on a Sunday morning.
Panda at play
Sitting at the seaside
‘Forest Hut’ café
Berlin Zoo’s website has all the details of opening times, ticket prices. feeding times and special events. There are opportunities to see into the zoo from outside as well. The path from Zoo Station into the Tiergarten runs alongside the camel and bison enclosure and the Bikini Berlin shopping centre has a terrace with great views of the monkey enclosures. To get a panoramic view of the whole site, take the lift to the Monkey Bar on the tenth floor of the Bikini Berlin Hotel or book a penthouse room in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel with its ‘Zoofenster’ (zoo window) tower.
Elephants and Zoofenster tower