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Celebrity beasts do the business

A new approach pays off, although it is not completely without unfortunate incidents.

Germany’s zoos have been playing an unorthodox game in recent years, and so far they’re winning. In 2011 some 35 million people bought tickets to visit one of the 200-odd major zoos and 500 small animal parks in the country. This record high was in part due to clever marketing of selected ‘celebrity’ animals, and in part due to transformation of zoos from traditional collections of cages to new-style experiential settings, in carefully landscaped recreations of natural habitats.

Some of the celebrity animals have found fame not just in Germany, but in the wider world. Knut the Polar Bear cub (Berlin Zoo) and Paul the Octopus (Oberhausen Sealife Centre) have been the most famous, with Paul making unerringly successful predictions during the 2010 World Cup, and Knut starting off incredibly cute, and then dying suddenly without warning in full view of his adoring public. He has been followed by two other polar bears, Flocke (Nuremberg Zoo) and Wilbär (Stuttgart Zoo), both of whom have been trademarked and merchandised and are still going strong, although now in new locations.

Not all of Germany’s celebrity animals have been so cuddly, however, and there’s cries of ‘exploitation’; Heidi the opossum (Leipzig Zoo) got world attention for being cross-eyed, and Nelson the baby Kea parrot (Bergzoo in Halle) was celebrated as the ugliest bird in the world, ‘a cross between a roast chicken and an alien’. Poor Nelly.

And then there’s the security issues created by the move away from cages towards the likes of Leipzig’s award-winning Gondwanaland, where visitors follow jungle trails and take a boat ride along a jungle river to discover a world of animals and plants.

Animal welfare (a major consideration when marketing a zoo) may be considerably improved in such places, but it risks being achieved at the expense of human welfare. In Cologne Zoo, last August, a keeper was killed by an escaped tiger. And in Hanover’s Adventure Zoo five chimpanzees climbed out of their enclosure using a makeshift ladder they’d constructed from tree branches. Fortunately, that particular adventure ended without mishap, as having tasted a limited amount of freedom, the chimps decided they didn’t think much of the outside world, and returned home.

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