Dino-Tours: Berlin Part IV: The Zoologischer Garten

Mike sports one of the lovely T-shirts
 we purchased at the Naturkundemuseum
 the previous day!
Again, the final chapter of our Berlin adventure may at first glance appear to be "a bit of a cheat". I mean; where are the dinos to be found in this "Dino-Tour" of a zoo full of extant species?
But I'd like to tackle this question head-on by stating first that while, admittedly, there are no dinosaur specimens to be found in either this or indeed any zoo that I have ever visited, there are an abundance of beautiful birds on display. And if the extant equivalent of a T. rex isn't enough to scratch your dinosaur itch then, well; just stay tuned for some interesting surprises to come... (you're just going to have to trust me; stick with me on this one and I promise you dinosaurs by the end of this article!)
Also I feel that since the title of this blog is "Adventures in Natural History" that allows me some wiggle-room for occasionally gallivanting outside the Mesozoic to explore the wonders of evolution across all eras and epochs, including our own. Basically I suppose the message is "it's my thing and I'll jolly well write about whatever I dashed well please! So there!"

Anyway, On with the show! We found that the weather gods were smiling on us all throughout our weekend I'm happy to say, so we got to enjoy Berlin Zoo in all its finest glory! We turned up early (about 10am) to get our tickets and only had to queue for about five minutes, but the queue quickly grew behind us, so like any big attraction, I'd recommend you get there early.

As soon as we passed through the ticket barriers, we were accosted by the first of many exquisitely constructed environments: a large rocky edifice with timber shelters sitting on top like decorations on a ridiculous cake. This was the enclosure for a species of mountain goat, many of which were happily scampering over the rocks as if the near fifteen foot drop to ground level was "no big deal". We were later to discover that this approach was typical of the styling of the zoo: drawing inspiration from human cultures native to a species' place of origin to construct place-sensitive experiences. It may sound a little twee, but it really does work: by styling the enclosures according to cultural geography, the park really does make you feel like you're travelling around the world in a cutely condensed way.

Right next to the alpine goat enclosure though, were the impressive Indian elephants. We were fortunate enough to catch these guys at their elevenses, so we managed to spend a good twenty minutes dawdling around the elephants, remarking on their extraordinary gait and trying to work out how their walk-cycles might differ from those of dinosaurs of a similar size (having spent most of the previous day gawping at sauropods).

Moving on, we decided to cover the south side of the park first, as this housed most of the things that we really wanted to see: namely the aquarium and reptile house, bison, giraffes, large cats and ostriches.

We meandered up towards the North American Bison, beautifully housed in an enclosure styled with log cabins and totem-poles and would have liked to sneak a peek in at the pandas in their neighbouring bamboo-lined enclosure, bedecked with traditional Chinese architectural touches. However, one glance at the queue for said pandas was enough to persuade us to come back later if we had the time: pandas, unsurprisingly, are the stars of any zoo, so my advice to anyone with pandas on their hit-list to get there early and head straight there to avoid the crowds.

We were not disappointed though, as we made our way around enclosures for Giraffes and Zebras: both styled in the architectural traditions of Northern and Eastern Africa. Then a quick visit to the Seals and Sea-lions, via an enclosure housing some surprising South American Condors!

The Sea-lions have a nice, large tank with a wave machine to keep them exercised and the glass sides allow visitors to get a good look at the antics of the residents under the water. I am categorically not a fan of marine animals being made to perform tricks, but seeing the keepers feeding the animals is always a joy. And where intelligent animals like seals are concerned, playing "Hide & Seek" and other such games during feeding is part of the animals' enrichment. We were fortunate enough to catch feeding time for a Grey Seal and her adorable pup (which easily took up about another twenty minutes!), but the penguin-house was so tiny that I wasn't able to get a good look at feeding time for the penguins. So, again: the lesson is if you are especially keen to see a feed, the best thing is to find the rota for feeding times and make sure that you're first on the scene before the crowds build up.

Sadly we were not so lucky at the predators' enclosures, as much of the building seemed to have been closed for a refurb and only one lovely lioness and a panther seemed to remain, so we made our way back down towards the aquarium, where we expected to be spending much of our day. On our way down though, I spied a large, grey shape fading into view against the bright sun. The figure's head and shoulders were obscured by the treeline at this distance, but it was easily fifteen feet tall, sat on its haunches and with two chubby, scaly hands held in a familiar pose. Not quite able to believe what I was seeing in this of all places, I asked Mike for confirmation. "Is that...an Iguanodon?"

From the look that we exchanged, we both knew that Yes; we weren't dreaming: we'd manage to find a dinosaur in the Berlin Zoo! Forgetting for a moment that we were both responsible adults in their thirties, Mike and I ran down to the aquarium to find it guarded by a beautiful early twentieth-century Iguanodon bernissartensis and festooned all over with images of hilariously misshapen extinct species including a disembodied ceratopsian (probably Triceratops, but given the shape of the frill and the fact that the aquarium only opened in 1913, it may also be the nomen dubium Agathaumas?) a squat Archelon and an endearingly bemused-looking Polacanthus.

This was absolutely the last thing that were expecting! And, frustratingly, we couldn't find any information on the dinosaurs at the site itself: the info panel inside the aquarium went into the history of the building in some detail, but the presence of the extinct animals was never adequately explained. Their presence on the facade of the aquarium seemed just so delightfully odd; like a visual nonsequitur.
Upon our return to the UK, we later learned that the aquarium had been designed by an early palaeo- artist named Heinrich Harder in the early 1900s. Quite what the original motivation for commissioning the sculptures was is anybody's guess, but it may well be that the earlier success of the Crystal Palace sculptures by Waterhouse Hawkins made the inclusion of dinosaurs a solid business-case for any large attraction for the ensuing decades (let's face it: it still is! Mike & I are pretty much living proof that people will go just about anywhere and see anything if you stick some big dinosaurs in it).

An Icthyosaur in an aquarium...because Why not?
Anyway, we did not have time to tarry, as we still had the aquarium and the reptile house to see. Both of these were quite splendid and arguably the highlight of our visit (20th century dinosaurs notwithstanding). Although the building appears quite small from the outside, the resident species are varied and all seem to have ample space and "enrichment" with which to enjoy simply being themselves (I'm not sure how much space the average Spotted Turtle really needs in the wild?).

The crocodilians' environment is spectacular: a long stretch of water, lined with lush vegetation shared by alligators, gharials and terrapins. Bridges spanning the water enable viewers to get an intimate view of the residents as they bask lazily on the bank or cruise through the waters in a leisurely fashion.

Just as we were finishing up in the reptile house, we heard the announcement that the zoo would be closing in fifteen minutes. Having toyed with the idea of venturing upstairs to take in the invertebrates (I love bugs, but am traumatised just by being in the same room as a spider, so ending our lovely day out with a potential arachno-crisis might not have been so desirable), we decided to call it a day and made our way to the gate (via the gift shop, naturally).

Conclusions & recommendations:
A full day to explore the Zoologischer garten is essential because the place in its entirety is vast! We were there from 11am right up to closing time at 6pm and we only managed to see about half of the enclosures, so even if we'd made it there an hour earlier, I doubt we'd have been able to see everything. So I would recommend that you plan your route through the zoo to take in all the exhibits that you really want to see and bear in mind that tickets for the zoo and aquarium can be purchased separately, so it might be an idea to visit the zoo for one day and then buy either a combined or aquarium-only ticket on a separate day to spread the experience out.

My only other words of wisdom to impart are that the cafe in the zoo proper is excellent (fritten & currywurst all served at reasonable prices in a lovely open-air setting), but we found the small cafe in the aquarium to be overpriced and poorly stocked, although the murals are a nice touch.

The Zoologisher garten is an absolute MUST SEE for anyone who loves wildlife. I agree that in an ideal world there would be no zoos, but we don't live in an ideal world and with its clear mission of conservation, education and animal welfare at its heart, Berlin zoo is right up there with the best.


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