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Tierpark: Berlin’s quirky, retro-socialist zoo

Is Berlin getting a new Knut? Berlin has a new polar bear that everyone's going gaga over in the press. It won't be housed at the Zoological Garden, but at Tierpark Berlin. Never heard of it? Here's the past, present and future of the East's zoo.

Image for Tierpark: Berlin's quirky, retro-socialist zoo
Photo by John Riceburg

The most magical spot in Berlin? Hands down it’s a park in Friedrichsfelde, in the Wild Wild East. The park is surrounded by a green fence, topped by a live wire. Enter through two gates, arranged like an airlock. Sit down on a bench and put down your bag. If you’re lucky, a Vari will come out to join you. These are lemurs, either reddish-brown or black-and-white, with big yellow eyes and jet-black hands. They might jump on your head to ruffle through your bag, or hang upside-down to let you pet their stomach. Varis are the fluffiest animals in the world, and they have almost no natural predators.

The Vari Forest is one of dozens of attractions in East Berlin’s Tierpark. This is Berlin’s second zoo, home to over 800 species of animals. Never heard of it? You’re not alone. Only a handful of English speakers find their way there. West Berlin’s Zoologischer Garten welcomes plenty of tourists. Two thirds of visitors are from outside of Berlin, and a quarter from outside of Germany. At Tierpark, in contrast, 98 percent of visitors come from Germany, and 75 percent are from Berlin. This is the quintessential Ossi zoo.

The problems for English-speakers start with the name. Tierpark? Even if you manage to translate that into “Animal Park”, you’ll likely picture a garden with a few sheep and maybe a pig, not a world-class zoo. Today, in 2016, most of the Tierpark’s signage is exclusively in German – in fact, if you look hard enough, you can still find a “No Feeding” sign in Russian.

The past

The Tierpark is absolutely massive – 160 hectares and 4.5 times larger than the Zoological Garden. Going from one animal enclosure to the next can require a walk through the woods. It’s so big that people come to walk their dogs – leading to occasional barking matches with Sumatran tigers or hyenas! – or go jogging. And it never seems to fill with screaming children. It’s perfect for people who love baby animals but are kind of ambivalent about baby humans.

The size is part of what makes this the “socialist” zoo. The West Berlin Zoo was founded when Friedrich Wilhelm IV, King of Prussia, donated a slice of his royal park back in 1841 – a paltry 35 acres. The park in Friedrichsfelde, in contrast, belonged to the aristocratic House of Tresckow. The Soviets expropriated the small palace after the war, as part of the agrarian reforms. To put it simply: The West Berlin zoo was gifted by the nobility – the East Berlin zoo was taken from the nobility.

The Tierpark was founded after the division of the city, but before the construction of the Wall. The rulers of the new German Democratic Republic didn’t want their citizens going to the capitalist West to look at animals. So they opened a nicer, and above all more spacious, zoo in 1955. Heinrich Dathe, the Tierpark’s director for more than three decades, was an East German national hero, on TV every week presenting different animals – kind of like a socialist Johnny Carson. Every native East Berliner has stories about the park.

Now, almost 30 years after reunification, you can still see the contours of a majestic socialist complex. Lots of squat buildings in gray-brownish tones, a few of them abandoned, but more with new coats of bright paint, plus a few post-1989 facilities sprinkled in between. These buildings house all your standard zoo animals – elephants and giraffes and tigers and monkeys – but also stranger fare including manatees, those big grey blobs of fat floating slowly through green water with faces like goofy dogs. There are kangaroos, reindeer and, in a nod to the park’s aristocratic past, peacocks that walk around freely.

The future

Christian Kern, the curator of mammals, and Philine Hachmeister of the PR department sat down with us to discuss why English-speaking visitors should come to the zoo. They are aware of some of the difficulties. “We are in the process of translating everything to English, and the website is already done,” Hachmeister assures us. An app with English translations of the plaques by the animal enclosures (already available for the Zoologischer Garten, if a bit spotty) is in the works. But even without the signage, the Tierpark has so much going for it. “We have more species of animals than the [West’s] zoo,” Kern asserts, then corrects himself. “Well, they have all the fish and amphibians in the aquarium. But we have more species of mammals.”

There are lots of plans for the next 25 years (besides translations). The animals are being re-arranged according to geographical region. So for example, the lonely hill at the back of the Tierpark is going to be transformed into a Himalayan exposition. The Alfred-Brehm-Haus, which currently holds large cats, fruit bats and birds, is going to be rebuilt as a Rainforest House. This is still Berlin, however: Construction was supposed to start last year, but they haven’t gotten past putting up signs with architectural renderings. It might be done by 2020, around the same time as the airport.

What about those Berliners who don’t like seeing animals in cages? Kern emphasizes the importance of people seeing wild animals up close, in order to encourage conservation. But he also acknowledges the problem. “We don’t only need to create a healthy environment for the animals, but also give visitors the feeling that the animals are happy.” But the biologists and keepers pay close attention to the animals well-being. And someone who only glances for 30 seconds might interpret totally normal behaviour as “looking sad”.

And Kern goes further: “This thing called ‘the wild’ doesn’t really exist anymore. Wild animals live in natural reserves and national parks. But these animals also can’t move wherever they want. They are managed by rangers. These national parks are basically just big zoos.”

And the Tierpark provides more space than most other facilities. “The biggest problem for modern zoos is space” he explains. “The Berlin Zoo has money, but no space. The Tierpark has space, but no money.”

On the way to Zootopia?

So is it time for a radical hipster makeover? Fresh shakes in the fruit bat house? Pilates classes in the kangaroo enclosure? Contests to design funny hats for Llamas? And call the whole thing “Heinrich’s Wild East Safari”?

Not yet. One more idea: How about declare Thursdays child-free days, so you can take a big rabbit and throw it into the large cat pens? No, Kern shoots down this idea too. He agrees it would be good for the cats, but German law prevents using any animal with a backbone as live food.

The lack of 21st-century marketing is part of Tierpark’s classically Berlin charm, somewhere between modern and dilapidated. After the interview, we walk around the Tierpark and find a “Heron House”. We’ve probably been here 50 times without ever seeing this before. This really is a magical place.