How it started
Since my old camera lacked some technical features, I often could not realize my photographic ideas. A new camera was needed. But from this conclusion to the day when I could hold the new equipment in my hands, it took some time. Shortly before Christmas 2020 I finally got the new camera, but the world around me had changed. Due to the Corona Pandemic photo trips had become impossible and almost all recreational facilities were closed. In order to become familiar with the operation of the new camera, I needed opportunities to practice. Especially when I wanted to take the camera with me under water, I had to master the operation of it. The vast majority of underwater creatures don't hold still long enough to be able to look for buttons. But how to practice when all of Germany is caught in lockdown? When I mentioned this problem to my friends, they suggested. "Why don't you go to the zoo?" In fact, zoos were still open in three German states. But one visit to a zoo is not enough; modern cameras are too complex for that. "Then go to the zoo every weekend!&qout; and "You can go to a different zoo every week!" were the suggestions that eventually led to the "50 zoos in a year" challenge.
As a child, I often went to zoological gardens. These visits were always the highlight of my summer vacations. From old photos from that time you can see that zoos were structured according to systematic aspects. There was the predator house, the monkey house, the bird house and so on. The animals were kept in cages, which often offered little space. Each species had its own enclosure. Today, one more often finds a geographical structure. There are areas for the different continents and climate zones, such as in the Zoom Erlebniswelt in Gelsenkirchen. There are also more and more socializations of different species in one enclosure. In addition to the facilities for African ungulates, as in Kronberg, there are also socializations of predators. An example of this is the facility for brown bears and foxes at Heidelberg Zoo. The cages of past times have been replaced by glass panels and moats. You can also find elevated walkways from which you have an unobstructed view into the enclosures. This technique was used especially in the Osnabrück Zoo. Many enclosures are now also accessible, without any barrier between humans and animals. I was particularly impressed by the Australian enclosure at Overloon Zoo Park. The Bergzoo in Halle offers a specialty in this regard. There you can find a walk-in bat-eared fox enclosure. So far the only walk-in "predator enclosure" I have seen. But bat-eared foxes are not really dangerous for humans, which is not true for the macaques in Rheine. There you should take good care of your bags when you enter the monkey area. The advantage of such facilities is not only that the visitors get an impression of the animals in their natural environment, also for the animals it is more entertaining. Stereotypical behavior is seen only occasionally nowadays. Mostly only shortly before feeding, when the animals patrol between the different feeding spots. Of course, not all zoos have made the same degree of progress. Many zoos have a heavy legacy with the "concrete architecture" of the 1970s. Such facilities were often designed for larger species such as bears and big cats, but are now too small and can only be demolished at great expense. Examples can be found in Wuppertal and Münster. These enclosures can be used for smaller species, as has been done in Mönchengladbach, but the enclosures still look rather dreary. Colorful painting, as in Saarbrücken, does not really help. Similar problems are faced by old zoos with long history whose animal houses are protected as cultural heritage. Here the conversion possibilities are very limited and a lot of creativity is required. That this is nevertheless possible can be seen in the new South America House of the Cologne Zoo. Another problem of traditional zoos is their inner city location. Expansion possibilities are virtually non-existent, because land prices are simply too high. This means that far fewer species can be kept than in the past. Two concepts for dealing with this dilemma got me particularly interested. Antwerp Zoo cooperates with Planckendael Zoo. For example, the spectacled bears, whose enclosure in Antwerp became too small, have now moved to Planckendael. To ensure that zoo visitors can still see the full range of species, annual passes are valid for both zoos. A different approach has been taken in Emmen in the Netherlands. There, the city center site was abandoned in favor of a new location. The result is that it was possible to implement a concept without having to worry about restrictions. If you think about the savannah landscape in Emmen, you might get the idea that the days of small zoos are numbered. Due to their smaller area, these zoos can show only few species. However, that this does not need to be a disadvantage can be seen in Darmstadt. Through clever selection of the species kept, an interesting mix has been found. Often one can see species in these small zoos, which one finds rarely anywhere else. The tiger iltis in Magdeburg Zoo is a prime example. Signs to the individual species can be found in every zoo. However, there are also large differences. In Emmen one finds for example boards addressing the distinguishing features between the individual giraffe, zebra, orang-utang and tiger species. At the Dierenrijk, animal keepers are present on many of the enclosures, who give small ad-hoc guided tours. Quite often you will find information boards designed for playful learning. Even I learned a lot this way during my zoo tour. I was not aware that you can distinguish an European from an Northamerican Elk by the shape of its antlers. Sometimes you can also learn from species that are not kept. Sloths come to mind as an example here. Sloths are not so rare to find in zoos. But they are always two-toed sloths. That I have not seen any three-toed sloths, I noticed sometime in the zoo store. They offer sloths made of plush for sale. But these always represent three-toed sloths. The internet quickly gives the explanation here. Three-toed sloths are similar to giant pandas extreme food specialists. While giant pandas are crowd pullers and justify the logistical expense of obtaining food, this is not the case with three-toed sloths. But this makes it clear how important it is to protect the natural biotopes of such species. Zoos as a modern Noah's Ark is often discussed controversially. However, there are examples of projects in which species that have disappeared in the wild have been reintroduced by zoos. The most spectacular is certainly the reintroduction of the Spix's Macaw in Brazil. This species, which became known to a broader public through the film "Rio", can be seen in Pairi Daiza. You will need a little luck as the animals are often in their indoor enclosure. Other animal species that no longer exist in are most often found in aquariums. Here some species of the Mexican highland carps should be mentioned. A reintroduction of these species fails due to the lack of protection of their former biotopes. It is obvious that zoos use the opportunity to point out the destruction of nature to the visitors. In almost every public aquarium you can find the "plastic garbage aquarium" today. I can understand the didactic approach, but I find the implementation too banal. Often you find plastic waste in these tanks, which is normal in European households. But the real problems are caused by another kind of plastic. Parts of fishing nets, which cause the death of seabirds on Helgoland, microplastics that you can't see, and production waste you don't find in these aquariums. So the impression is given that by reducing household waste can get the problem under control. I don't think that is correct. Although I was unable to visit many aquarium houses due to corona, overall I see the greatest need for modernization there. There are already some very nice facilities. The Aquazoo in Düsseldorf was always a good example for me. In the meantime, however, I would rank the Hagenbeck Tropical Aquarium higher. Also Burger's Ocean is worth seeing. In this context, the Sea-Life Centers come to mind. I visited one of them, but was rather disappointed. The facilities are too much to impress the visitor. The didactic part is far too short.
People and animals
Many people have animal welfare concerns when thinking about zoos. Today, zoos are much larger than in the past, so that the criticism is less and less justified. But the noisy hordes of visitors who flock to zoos on a sunny vacation day, surely they can't be good? In the case of aquariums I share this opinion, because fish and amphibians do not have the brain structure to get used to having their windows knocked on. Which is why you should stop doing so. Reptiles have learned that anything outside the terrarium cannot threaten them. Rattlesnakes that in the wild would use their rattle to warn people not to come closer, are completely relaxed in terrariums. This changes only when the keepers put food animals into the terrarium. Many species prefer a hidden lifestyle anyway. Birds and mammals, on the other hand, I had the impression that visitors are to them what the television is to a couch potato. You watch the program when you like but do not follow it very attentively. This becomes especially clear when visitors want to attract the animals attention. They shouted, whistled, waved and what not, so that the animal should turn around and you do not only get the rear end on the photo. It was amusing to see that such antics were never crowned with success. There is just neither sound nor gesture, which the animals have not already seen a thousand times from other visitors. So they remain stoic and go about their business. But if the visitors are missing, like in Corona times, then the animals notice this already negatively. So I could observe a snowy owl in Berlin Zoo, which jumped up and down above the door to its accessible aviary, if visitors approached. Obviously, the animal did not understand why no one came in to see it. On a later visit, the aviary was then open and the snowy owl was sitting quietly on its branch. Her world got back to normal. I noticed something similar at the Amneville Zoo, where the sea lions were still putting on a show for visitors after feeding time. They swam curiously along the glass even came to the edge of the pool and reacted to the gestures of the spectators. However, I could observe several times that the animals keep a very close eye on us visitors, even if they seem uninterested. Since many zoos today use glass panes instead of grids, photographers have to deal with reflections. A simple solution to this problem is the Universal Lenshood. This is simply a kind of black silicone rubber funnel that is put over the front of the lens. The wide opening is then pressed against the glass, eliminating reflections. As a side effect, the lens can be clearly seen from the inside of the glass pane. In Amersfoort there was a sleeping lion lying directly against the glass. When I pressed the lenshood against the glass pane, he opened his eyes, got up and started trying to touch the lenshood with his paw. It was clear to see that he had not extended the claws. He was reminiscent of a house cat playing with a ball of wool. After a few minutes, he no longer found the game interesting, as he could not get hold of the toy through the glass pane and lay down again. Also some smaller monkey species came close to the glass pane when I used the Ultimate Lenshood. Obviously this was something new for them to see closely. As a photographer, you are of course happy when you find something that makes the animals look into the lens. In Erfurt, however, I needed strong nerves. There is an extensive cheetah enclosure. When I arrived, both animals were to roam through their enclosure. Unfortunately they kept a larger distance to the glass pane, behind which I had positioned myself. I therefore mounted my 800mm lens and the Ultimate Lenshood. This allowed me to get full-frame shots of one of the cheetahs. The second animal was in the back of the enclosure. As I now strained to look through the viewfinder, I noticed that a blurry white area came into the picture on the right. I suspected that the wind had blown a tree branch into the view and I would have to correct only my location somewhat, in order to have again free view. When I set the camera down, I saw that the white area was caused by the condensed breath of the second cheetah, who obviously wanted to have a closer look at what was going on at the border of his enclosure. With this story we are already at discussing the special moments I had with the zoo attendance in this year. The lion enclosure in Overloon is one of them. There I could observe a group of male lions in full run. Actually only the prey animal was missing. There was the otter from Pakawi Park, which was following a gibbon at every step. Or the red panda that fled from a muntiak up a tree. I could easily continue this list.
Money makes the world go round
It was clear to me that a zoo needs a lot of money. I found an information board in the zoo Dresden on which the financing of the zoo was made transparent. If one sees the meaning of the daily incomes, then it annoys me that some administrations use the Corona regulations to "squeeze" the zoos. What was also very striking is that zoos in Germany have significantly lower entrance fees compared to zoos in France or Benelux. While I think it's good if poorer families can afford to visit zoos, but more money would speed up the redesign of old facilities, which would benefit animals and visitors. Also, entrance fees at the level of our neighboring countries would contribute to the financial independence of our zoos. Cooperation between zoos is something I would like to see not only in terms of species conservation, but also in terms of tickets. I would find an annual ticket for all NRW zoos very attractive. This would allow visitors to see many species without each zoo having to keep that many species. Sponsorship is also a good thing. However, I couldn't help smiling at the Zoo am Meer in Bremerhaven when I saw that the aquarium with North Sea animals was sponsored by the restaurant chain "Nordsee".
One question I have often been asked is which zoo is the most beautiful. I have a hard time answering this question for two reasons. First, it is incredibly difficult to rank zoos. Should one rank the rarity of the animals shown? Then a zoo like the one in the movie "Fierce Creatures" would win. Should one rank only the size That would then put small zoos at a disadvantage. But even if you do decide to give a rating, this often leads to the reader visiting the highly rated zoos and neglects the smaller zoos. But that would be unfair and also not useful, because the small zoos also need the entrance fees. But since I feel I can't avoid answering the question, I asked myself which of the 50 zoos I would visit again if I could only choose one. And that's when I spontaneously decided on Wildlands Emmen. Wildlands is simply a beautiful facility, has a good didactic concept, the animals make a healthy impression and you get close as a visitor. I also have one point of criticism about Emmen. That would be the sea turtle keeping. If you keep large reptiles in a seawater tank, then you have to install an enormous filter system. I have yet to see any sea turtle keeping at any zoo that I could find to be good enough. I don't know if Emmen shows these animals to stand out from the zoos in the area. There is definitely no need for that. Emmen should think again about the aquariums! Now that my number 1 is clear, I'd like to mention the next places: Zoom Erlebniswelt Gelsenkirchen, Pairi Daiza, Zoo Hannover, Gaia Zoo Kerkrade and Burger's Zoo Arnhem. In small zoos, you can spend more time observing the animals, which is a big advantage. If I had to choose a favorite among the smaller zoos zoos, then the Vivarium Darmstadt would be first. You notice when you visit how much thought has been put into the design. Are there also zoos that I didn't like? Yes, but this was not a zoo, but a commercial, public aquarium. This center was equipped with a lot of showmanship, which was also reflected in the selection of animals. I don't find this pseudo-educational display of animals desirable. That's why there was no photo series about this visit on my facebook apge and I didn't count it among the 50 zoos.
Another thing that stood out was the large number of families that went to the zoo and spent most of their time with the kids in the playgrounds. Somehow my heart bleeds because so little time is spent getting the kids excited about the animals. On the other hand, I can understand the parents, because the playgrounds in the zoo are clean, well maintained and there are no criminals sneaking around. Actually, it's sad when families have to spend the entrance fee in order to to let their children play carefree. Because the zoos are also "guarded", there is even playground equipment that "in the city" would probably be broken after 24 hours.
At the beginning there I was in doubt if 50 zoos in one year can be done at all. Today, one year and more than 25000 photos later, I have to realize that I still have a few zoos on my list that I would like to visit. So I will certainly continue to go to zoos with my camera. The other day the idea came up for a follow-up challenge: "1 year, one zoo, 50 species&qout; But I haven't made upü my mind whether I should take this challenge. But who knows.