Burgers` Zoo - an animal park of superlatives
Prof`in Dr. Gela Preisfeld / Biology
Photo: Sebastian Jarych

Zoos have the mission to educate society

Zoologist Gela Preisfeld on the Burgers` Zoo in Arnhem, the Netherlands, which opened its doors 100 years ago.

On March 31, 1913, Johan Burgers first opened his private collection of animals to the public under the name Pheasantry Buitenlust in 's-Heerenberg in Gelderland. In 1923, it opened its doors under the name Burgers` Zoo in Arnhem. As a biologist, what do you think of zoological gardens?

Preisfeld: That's not easy to answer, and you have to differentiate between modern zoos that keep an eye on animal welfare and want to present animal-friendly habitats as well as the biotic community in a biotope and those that, in my opinion, should not be called zoos either - although the term is not protected - in which the animals are only kept as an attraction. The first I welcome, the second I completely reject.

I think a lot of zoos as educational institutions, because they have an educational mission and most of them fulfill it in many ways. I always like to quote Konrad Lorenz, who says: 'You only love what you know and you only protect what you love'. This means that you first have to get to know the animals in order to love them and thus to be able to recognize their need for protection and, in turn, to be able to develop conservation ideas. It sounds wise and simple, but to develop these thoughts and the willingness to do something in society is often very difficult. Zoos take on the task of educating society and in doing so reach a great many people. More people go to the zoo than to any other educational institution, and that is extremely important. There they get information about the challenges and opportunities of nature and species conservation.

Burgers` Zoo now advertises with the slogan: A trip around the world in one day. What makes it so special?

Preisfeld: I was there again just recently and, as always, I'm thrilled. What makes it special are the ecodisplays, (ecodisplays are habitats designed to resemble natural habitats, where animals often live in great freedom, sometimes surrounded by thousands of plants. Visitors can experience this habitat up close. Editor's note) that exist in the zoo. They show animals, plants, and of course fungi, microorganisms, etc. living together, a bit like the natural world.

"Discover the animals in their natural habitat," says the superlative zoo. Is it really the case that this zoo perfectly replicates the natural habitat of animals and plants?

Preisfeld: Perfect may not be possible, but it replicates the habitat, and therefore the ecosystem, as well as it possibly can in a limited space. You have to know that these displays are really very large. Of course, as a zoologist, I love visiting zoos and I think it was very well done at Burgers` Zoo. I could see that the organisms there are doing very well. The nice thing about these habitats is that you don`t just see an isolated animal, but you can experience it in its community. Many animals live there in freedom because the area is large enough and there are retreats. It is really something special. Can you describe the habitats?

Preisfeld: There are a total of six ecodisplays and an open space called a park. That's the part that's most like other zoos. That's where you find a lot of monkeys, elephants, etc. This park is not designed for a habitat, here you want to display the animals. One of the habitats is the safari area. You can find animals and plants of East Africa, an area with lions, giraffes and antelopes, which are of course separated, because that could be too dangerous. Then there is the desert. Selected areas here are from North America and northern Mexico. I really like the bush, which has just been restored and developed. Birds, fish, caimans, aardvarks can be found there in the tropical rainforest, which is also simulated there at night. For this it rains every night for many hours, so the air is very saturated with water and you notice this as a visitor. There are also some animals hunting the others. For example, the birds hunt the butterflies, insects and small fish, etc. Then there is the so-called Rimba, which are the forest areas of Southeast Asia. There they have tigers, pythons and bears. And my favorites are the mangroves and the Ocean area.

The mangrove forest, for example, where you can also see manatees -which have even had offspring in captivity- also has an area for butterflies. That's something special, isn't it?

Preisfeld: The mangrove area also transitions a bit into tropical rainforest and dry forest. What immediately puts you in this tropical mood are the beautiful butterflies. There are different habitats to discover. In the more dry area, you'll find the giant blue morphos and the banana butterflies, fantastic animals that, by the way, you can also marvel at again here in the Botanical Garden in September in a butterfly exhibition. The populations there are very rich in individuals. But if you have large populations permanently, then you have the problem with the food plants. The butterflies lay their eggs on the plants, the larvae develop and of course eat the plants. But if the feeding becomes too great, then the plants react and develop substances to repel the animals. In most cases they stop growing. That's where Burgers` Zoo has found a good solution. They put the food plants in huge tubs and replace them after a while, remove the excrement of the animals with the top layer of soil and give the plants time to regenerate. In the mangrove there are also big animals: the manatees, my special favorites, because they swim so gracefully through the water and are such peaceful living, very calm, gentle animals, related to our elephants. You can see that even if you know it. They have the same, small eyes, the skin is similar, they have tactile hairs on the face, which is rare in mammals living in water. The front legs have been transformed into fins and you can still see the remains of the former toes at the edge. The bones of the elephants have become light in the course of evolution, so that the body can carry the weight, with the manatees it is the other way around. The bones have become heavier so that they can sink better and eat the sea grass at the bottom of the sea. I would also like to mention the fiddler crabs that are bred there as well as the mudskippers, fascinating little animals that you can discover there.

Another attraction is Burgers' Ocean, a tropical coral reef in an aquarium that holds eight million liters of water. The most important part of the aquarium is the living coral reef in a 750,000-liter tank. It is the largest living coral reef in Europe. At the same time, research is not neglected. The knowledge and know-how for the cultivation of corals could be of great importance for the protection of coral reefs in nature in the future. This is more than just a display of wild animals, isn't it?

Preisfeld: This is also very much about research, biological, veterinary research, but also about the husbandry of the animals, for example feeding. What do the animals tolerate, what do they need? Of course, this is particularly difficult with coral reefs, because we all know how sensitive coral reefs are. They do that incredibly well in Arnhem, and it's not more beautiful in nature. The interactions are studied there. What do light incidence, currents and water quality mean, which we are deteriorating more and more. They study aspects there that are then also relevant to the real world. The zoo cooperates with many universities and research institutes. In addition to coral breeding, eagle rays and sharks could be propagated there, and both hard and soft corals could be bred. It is impressive to see and of great importance for research.

Zoos have also had to learn animal welfare. Whereas in the safari market of the 1960s you could still drive past the wild animals by car, today you can observe them from viewing platforms and bridges. Animal protection has had to fight a long time for that, hasn't it?

Preisfeld: Yes, animal protection had to fight. But it's not just animal protection or animal rights activists who have brought this about. There has also been a change in thinking in the zoos themselves. There is a European, but also worldwide association of zoos that have imposed certain standards on themselves. It has also become clear to them that animal welfare must come first, even if there is an educational mission, but it must be secondary at this point. Many people are calling for the abolition of zoos because animals cannot be kept there in a manner appropriate to their species. That's true, you can't keep them species-appropriate, yet I strongly disagree with the calls, at least in the case of scientifically run zoos. I would also use a different term. Species-appropriate would mean that you also expose the animals to the normal stressors that are outside, such as predators, poor climatic conditions, forest fires, drought, hunger and thirst. You don't want to do that because you can't consciously put any animal through that. Therefore, with regard to zoos, one should rather speak of animal-friendly. And that can be implemented very well if there is a sensible concept. Like with these eco-displays, where entire ecosystems are presented in a natural way and the animals live in some degree of freedom. Wild-caught animals, as used to be the case for zoos, were particularly bad. Today, zoo-born animals are replaced and the focus is on fewer species, but more communities with near-natural conditions.

Burger`s Zoo covers an area of 45 hectares, and the park is still a family-run operation. It offers guided tours, readings, classes and internships, organizes exhibitions, publishes a free magazine every two months with current events and interesting background information, and has an international network. How important is this worldwide cooperation?

Preisfeld: Enormously important, if we look at the fact that more and more habitats are disappearing. Because humans are such interfering creatures, biotope and nature conservation are of great importance. This can only be done across borders. All the scientifically managed zoos are networked in conservation and breeding programs. One specializes in certain animals. In Wuppertal, there are also breeding programs, including one for the snow leopard or African elephant. To prevent inbreeding, exchanges information about the European Endangered Species Program (EEP). There are tough regulations that have to be met. Burgers` Zoo, for example, has 35 EEP species and many species for which a studbook is kept. In the European Studbook Program (ESB), the requirements are less strict, but if a species is threatened, it can be immediately transferred to an EEP program. If this occurs, zoos have a direct overview of genetic diversity for the conservation of a large gene pool ex-situ, i.e. outside the natural habitat.

So can zoos contribute to the conservation of species, or will this only delay species extinction by a few years?

Preisfeld: Species extinction is very difficult to stop, that's for sure. Economic, political interests or human needs simply play too big a role... Nevertheless, we should not stop developing strategies, and there are also positive examples of how to counteract this. One way is, if you have species with a large enough gene pool, to reintroduce them . This is very difficult, there have been many failed attempts, but it is succeeding more and more often because our knowledge of species, how they live together and how they interact in habitats has grown. You may be familiar with the Przewalski's horses that have been reintroduced into the wild, or with mink, lynx or the bison in our country, which had even become extinct and whose population was rebuilt from twelve specimens living in zoos. Today there are again about 3000 bisons in the wild, also here in Germany. Another example are the golden lion monkeys. Some time ago there were only 200 of them left in the world. In 1993 the conservation breeding was started. Today there are over 1000 of them again, and they have now been downgraded from the status of 'endangered' to 'critically endangered'.

North Rhine-Westphalia also has several zoological gardens with different concepts and focuses. Which zoo would you like to visit again?

Preisfeld: I always enjoy going to our Green Zoo. After all, we also cooperate; we do joint research on African elephants and jointly supervise a doctoral thesis. We also work with the zoo as part of its educational mission. Many bachelor's and master's theses have been written. I really appreciate the zoo and I also really appreciate the attitude of the zoo director, Dr. Arne Lawrenz, regarding the direction of the zoo. Animal welfare and scientific research that benefits wildlife are at the top of his list.

Uwe Blass

Professor Dr. Gela Preisfeld studied, earned her doctorate and habilitated at the University of Bielefeld. After short research stays in Australia and a substitution at the Goethe University Frankfurt/Main, she accepted the call to the chair of Biology and its Didactics, Zoology at the Bergische University in 2006.

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