Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Berliners love zoos

The Berlin zoo has been popular in Germany since its opening in 1844. It stimulated their intellectual curiosity about the broader world, lands and peoples beyond their borders. Unlike other zoos in Europe, the Berlin zoo was open to the public.

Overview of the pre-WWII zoo.

A zoo in the nineteenth century was much different than today. Folks went there for society: concerts, restaurants with 5,000 tables, evening strolls away from the urbanization of the city, and to see animals. In Through the Lion’s Gate, author Gary Bruce shares another quirky attraction: Berliners were excited by the prospect of smoking at the zoo, an act banned since 1787 on streets and squares.

The Predators House

People were less concerned about the welfare of animals than the need for educational and scientific goals. One of the founders, Martin Liechtenstein, was aghast that visitors put lit cigarettes in the hands of monkeys, but also promoted social dinners serving surplus zoo animals.
Animals were captured in the wild by hunters killing the mother and capturing the baby. Dominating nature and imposing man’s will on the animal world were the themes of the nineteenth century.

The Elephant House. Buildings visually signified the lands from which the animals came.

People were also displayed in the zoo. Inuits from Greenland, Nubians from northeast Africa, Mongolian nomads, Chileans, Lapps. As late as the 1920s, human exhibits were common. The people demonstrated their hunting skills, wedding traditions, and dances. This may sound similar to today’s living history museums, but in at least one instance, when an Inuit didn’t do what the sponsor wanted, he was whipped with a dog whip.

The Antilope House.

In the twentieth century, a new emphasis grew to save animals rather than hunt them into extinction. Animals’ lives, freedom and happiness are more important than dominance. During the Nazi era, nature conservation and animal protection were big themes. The Berlin zoo was implicit in identifying with Nazi racial policies, and tried to whitewash its past. At the outset of the war, the zoo had over 4,000 animals. At war’s end, only ninety-one had survived. Despite towering piles of rubble and make-shift shelters among the ruins, the zoo reopened two months later. More than a million Germans visited the zoo in the year after the war.

The zoo director, a close friend of Herman Goring, kept him supplied with young lions from the zoo, retrieving them when they got too big and dangerous for the field marshall's private residence.

A devoted population saved the zoo many times, as they did during the Berlin Airlift. Zoos are expensive, and the people gave money to the zoo even when they had little.
After the war, the first female director discontinued public feeding of the animals, which led to deaths through overfeeding or intestinal infections. A polar bear died after being fed salt herring.

Through the Lion’s Gate by Gary Bruce releases in August. It offers an engrossing history of Berlin’s zoo.

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