Visiting Zoo Hellabrunn

A soft spot for animals

Hellabrunn is one of the most popular excursion destinations in the Munich area. Our author accompanied the zoo director on a tour and learnt that animals are not the only focus in the zoo.

I love animals. This has always been the case. Animals move me in a way that only a few people can. And this is because animals are not base or cruel, everything that they do pursues a goal; they are the most honest creatures around. Animals are also quite funny; fish, for example, hunt each other for fun, they play tag and hide themselves in the sand or under stones.

I think it is not possible to observe animals and be in a bad mood or feel bored.

As a child I had a budgie (Maxi), later a Bernese mountain dog (Kyra), and I absolutely adored both of them. I thought when I am grown up, I will buy as many pets as can fit in my flat. Today unfortunately I no longer have any pets. I am on the road a lot and live in an attic flat. So that is why I have an annual pass for the zoo. There is hardly a place in Munich that I like as much as Hellabrunn.a visitor I can see giraffes, poisonous snakes and birds of prey within just a few minutes amazes me.

I try to go to the zoo at least once a month. When I walk from the car park in the direction of the Flamingo entrance, I am as excited as the children in front of me hopping over the asphalt while holding on to their parents’ hands. I find it fascinating that so many different animals live in one place practically in the centre of the city. That as a visitor I can see giraffes, poisonous snakes and birds of prey within just a few minutes amazes me.

My little trips to Hellabrunn are always the same: the first thing I do is visit the chimpanzees in the Urwaldhaus (Jungle House). Then I pass by the vipers and cobras and walk through the aquarium, buy myself a chocolate crêpe outside and sit down with it beside the orangutans. I think it is not possible to observe animals and be in a bad mood or feel bored.

Today, on a sunny autumn day, I have an appointment with the zoo director, we are standing in front of the ring-tailed lemur enclosure. I have known the ring-tailed lemur and its catlike movements for quite a while. The ring-tailed lemur comes from Madagascar originally. He has just woken up. As if in slow motion, the animal with the yellow eyes and striped tail moves along the treetops – and the zoo director beams all over his face. “There, can you see them!” he says and points to the lemurs with his index finger. The lemur has now stretched out its arms and is lying out in the sun in a lascivious manner. A few visitors are standing in front of the lemur enclosure with their necks craned and are laughing at the creature. It looks like the lemur – just like the visitors – wants to enjoy the sunrays.

Actually today I wanted to work behind the scenes as an animal keeper – my secret dream job. But that is not so easy to arrange without further ado. Somehow I find this even good. In Hellabrunn, I think they take the inhabitants of their zoo seriously. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t want complete strangers to walk through my living room and stroke my head.

On the day when the lemur is lounging around in the sun, I get an exclusive guided tour of the premises with the Director of Hellabrunn Zoo. Rasem Baban has been the director of the Munich Zoo since 2014. Before that the 52 year old was the deputy director of Leipzig Zoo but is nevertheless a lateral entrant in his career. “I did not study biology like most my colleagues,” he says. “I am actually an architect!”

... and so you quickly dispense with the naive idea that a zoo director spends his entire day cuddling baby monkeys in a Hawaiian shirt.

Baban has even worked as a management consultant in the past. These professional skills are currently of great benefit to the zoo director: In the past few years, many new construction projects have been realized in Hellabrunn; entire enclosures built from scratch and renovated.

The Elephant House is an example of this: designed in 1914 by the Munich architect Emanuel von Seidl, it was the trademark of Hellabrunn for a long time. But there was a problem: as a result of the steam from the elephant urine which contained ammonia, the substance of the building suffered, until finally in 2010 a part of the ceiling collapsed unexpectedly. “It was a miracle that nothing happened to the elephants at that time,” says Baban, sounding relieved. After moving the animals out, various safety precautions and a new design concept, it was possible to open the new Elephant House in 2016. The costs for the project ran to 22 million euros. We are standing on the gallery of the building and are looking into the animal bathing pool. Today all the elephants move around freely in outdoor areas. 

I remember as a child visiting the Stuttgart Zoo, the Wilhelma, and being allowed to feed the elephants with peanuts. That would be unthinkable today. Protecting animals from visitors (and the other way around) has top priority in German zoos. But that is not the only issue: “My job is also about healthy management,” says Baban and so you quickly dispense with the naive idea that a zoo director spends his entire day cuddling baby monkeys in a Hawaiian shirt.

The zoo is a major operation. Not only does Baban have to manage around 220 employees, take responsibility for sales of around 16 million euros per year, and guarantee the safety of 2.5 million visitors – but above all offer animals a good home. And one that is as species-appropriate as possible, which is no easy task. Nowadays zoos repeatedly come under heavy criticism from animal conservationists.

Baban is not some kind of cold manager who just stares at figures all day – he has a soft spot for animals.

However, I am pretty sure of this – the animals in Hellabrunn feel very much at home in their habitat. The stately lion who loiters on the lawn, the cute Humboldt penguins who leap into the water after taking a run-up, the red giant kangaroo in his enclosure: they all seem to be very relaxed. Rasem Baban, married with three grown-up children, lives with his family in the middle of the zoo’s grounds. “It is as if my children have hundreds of pets,” he says and laughs. Baban is not some kind of cold manager who just stares at figures all day – he has a soft spot for animals. This isn’t just noticeable in the enthusiasm that he shows for the lemurs, but at every new enclosure that we visit on this day.

We continue on to the polar bears. They too are lying in the sun and seem to have accepted their new home very happily – the Polar World was completely redesigned in 2010. What is particularly interesting is that to the rear, the polar bear enclosure is not fenced off, but positioned over a large overgrown trench. For visitors it looks like the polar bears could leave their enclosure at any time. “But they can’t of course,” says Rasem Baban. “But this too is important to us: to design the boundary for the animals to be as natural as possible.”

The Polar World is a good example of the tried-and-tested concept of the geozoo. The geozoo is an ancient Munich invention from 1928 and has been implemented since then in many serious zoos worldwide. A geozoo means that the animals in Hellabrunn are not sorted by species but accommodated according to the continents they come from.

„You wouldn’t believe it but some children no longer know what a cock looks like.“
Rasem Baban

That is why penguins and seals also live in the Polar World, in addition to the polar bears. Even the catering is set up according to the appropriate theme: young salted herring rolls and fish & chips are served in the Polar World. In addition there is a jungle world, a Mongolian steppe and a South America installation – the most recent themed world to be set up in Hellabrunn is the Mühlendorf (“Bavarian Village Environment”).

It was opened in the summer of 2018 and spanning around 20,000 square metres is a type of zoo within a zoo. “In the Mühlendorf, we want to bring visitors close again in particular to indigenous species,” says Rasem Baban. “You wouldn’t believe it but some children no longer know what a cock looks like.” In the Mühlendorf there are animals whose homeland is Germany: chickens, cows, pigs, goats. For fans of exotic animal breeds, this might sound boring but it isn’t at all. There is even a trout hatchery within the wooden structures of the Mühlendorf.

I am keen to know more as at the end of the day I recently obtained my fishing license and since then I have almost exclusively been focusing on fish-related pursuits. I find out that the trouts that emerge from the eggs in Hellabrunn will be released at a later stage into the River Isar. And then I think perhaps they will land on my plate at some point.

The Mühlendorf also houses three small kunekune pigs – a type of pig from New Zealand. Because there are hardly any old German pig species left, the zoo has instead chosen these pets. The pigs look like they are wearing wigs. Native biodiversity is of paramount importance in Mühlendorf. “It is not just exotic animals that are sometimes threatened by extinction but also certain domestic species,” says Rasem Baban. “Here we see it as our full responsibility to protect these animals.”

„It is not just exotic animals that are sometimes threatened by extinction but also certain domestic species.”
Rasem Baban

In a glass case, I discover a couple of young grass snakes – and a fire salamander. This blows my socks off as well. I must admit, I have often seen tigers and lions in zoos but never a salamander. And the tiny grass snakes who curl around in their mossy glass case show considerably more action than, for example, the green long-nosed bush viper or the white-lipped cobra who generally hang completely lifelessly in the branches.

Does the zoo director actually have a favourite animal? “No, I honestly don’t,” says Rasem Baban and laughs. “I like them all equally.” I believe him. And at the end of the day, I think the same thing.

 

 

Text: Heike Kottmann; Photos: Frank Stolle

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