Knut the Polar Bear
Knut the Polar Bear
Claudia Ehrenstein

HAMBURG - For Stephan Hering-Hagenbeck, whose family has run this city's zoo for over 100 years, there are challenges both inside and outside the gates of any such "animal park."

Inside this zoo, as for every zoo around the world, the biggest challenge is to keep the animals from getting bored. Hering-Hagenbeck explains that animals in the wild are busy ensuring their survival 24 hours a day. They have to find food, defend themselves or their territory.

"In a zoo, all of that is done by humans," says Hering-Hagenbeck, who has a degree in biology and has spent many years in Africa studying how animals live in the wild, so he could incorporate as many features as possible into his zoo.

At a time when more and more people live in cities and know less and less about the way animals live in nature, Hering-Hagenbeck says the zoo’s main mission is educational. "We want to interest our visitors in nature," he says. But that can only happen if the zoo’s animals are happy – and that can only happen if they are being kept in conditions suitable to their species.

Penguins in the wild, for example, normally have to leave their breeding colony and travel quite far to find food. That’s something that zoos have so far not incorporated into the design of penguin enclosures, he says. At the Hagenbeck zoo, the colony space is now separated from the feeding space by a 50-meter-wide (164 feet) water basin so the penguins have to walk and swim if they want to eat. It is good for them – and interesting for visitors.

Hering-Hagenbeck of course knows that a zoo cannot simulate nature. But it can offer the animals some diversity. A good-sized enclosure is important, but so is the way it’s set up. The zoo has invested over 20 million euros in a new polar-sea facility where polar bears, penguins and walruses live together.

The polar bears are favorites of the public, although elephants and apes are also high on the list. They draw people to the zoo, as Berlin Zoo’s world-famous Knut the polar bear proved, before dying in 2011.

"Like people, apes don’t belong in a zoo"

Indeed, it is now precisely these particularly beloved animals that animal rights activists want to ban from zoos. James Brückner of Munich’s Animal Protection Academy is calling for zoos to forgo keeping certain animals in order to make more room for others.

"It’s not about prohibiting zoos per se," says Brückner. But polar bears, for example, need to cover big distances to find food, and they can’t satisfy their need for movement in a zoo. What’s more, he says, they’re loners – so the close contact with other polar bears, not to mention zoo visitors, is a source of suffering that could in a worst-case scenario lead to behavioral disturbances and illness.

The animal rights activists are receiving support from German Green party members. Undine Kurth, the Greens’ animal protection spokeswoman, believes that it is vital to rethink the presence of certain animals in zoos. "Apes don’t belong in a zoo," Kurth says: like people, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos have a sense of themselves, so ethically it is not right to keep them cooped up and exhibited in a zoo.

Nor should dolphins be in zoos, Kurth says. The tiny basins they are kept in amount to animal cruelty, and the activist insists that the last two German dolphinariums (in Duisburg and Nuremberg) should be closed. Kurth called for binding guidelines for keeping animals in zoos and nature parks based on living conditions of the animals in the wild. Present German law makes recommendations only.

The 70-page Mindestanforderungen an die Haltung von Säugetieren ("Minimum Requirements for Keeping Mammals"), which dates from 1996, is presently being reviewed by the German Minister for Agriculture Ilse Aigner, thus opening up the opportunity for animal rights activists to try and push through stricter regulations for zoos.

Stephan Hering-Hagenbeck takes a pretty laid-back view of the revision of the legislation, which he points out deals with minimum requirements. The Hagenbeck zoo, he says, aims for "best practice" based on the latest scientific knowledge.

He offers one example: the zoo used to have fixed installations for orangutans to climb on. But after a trip to Borneo, Hering-Hagenbeck observed that in the wild the apes move cautiously from branch to branch, testing each one first for solidity. So for his zoo’s orangutan enclosure they designed new equipment that re-creates the need for testing as the animals clamber about. Hering-Hagenbeck says it’s been a big hit with the apes -- and also makes for a more interesting visit for the humans watching them.

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