Friday, April 17, 2020

Tierpark Neumünster spotlights the plight of zoos


Tierpark Neumünster in the northwest part of Germany has been in the news lately, in the wake of an interview by the zoo director about the financial strain of the Coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent shut down of all zoos in Europe.


With the doors closed, just as the busy season is beginning, zoos still have to pay the keepers and medical staff, and buy food for the animals, all with no money coming in.

Today it was announced that the zoos in Germany will be allowed to reopen next week, although some may stay closed a while longer. Also, the City of Neumünster is now giving some financial help for the zoo. More about the controversy below.

Vitus in his pool

The most famous residents of the zoo are polar bears Vitus and Larissa, and they are the reason I visited the zoo three years ago. These photos are from that trip.

Vitus is said to be the largest polar bear in Germany, at almost 12 feet tall.

Larissa in Karlsruhe

As the bears had just arrived and were still separated during my visit in 2017,,
 I didn't get to see much of Larissa.  Here she is in the back enclosure, temporarily separated from Vitus

29 year old Larissa was born in Rotterdam in 1990,  and lived in Paris and Stuttgart before coming to Karlsruhe in 2003, where she met youngsters Vitus, Kap and Nika. Kap moved to Neumünster in 2004, which left Larissa, Vitus and Nika to share the large new enclosure in Karlsruhe. In the spring of 2017, Vitus and Larissa moved to Neumünster. 

Vitus in Karlsruhe. He is said to be the largest polar bear in Germany

19 year old Vitus is the third offspring of Vienna and Churchill, born in 2000 in Rostock. He is brother to Victoria, Victor, Vilma, Venus and Valeska. As a cub, he moved to Zoo Karlsruhe in 2001, and he and Larissa moved together to 
Neumünster in the spring of 2017.

Vitus in Tierpark Neumünster

Vitus swims his laps

I visited the pair in May of 2017, about a month after they moved from Zoo Karlsruhe. Tests had determined that Vitus was sterile, so Vitus' old childhood friend Kap, who had lived alone in Neumünster for years, swapped places with the pair and moved to Karlsruhe.

Vitus and his visitors

I was able to ride the city bus directly from the Neumünster train station to the entrance of the zoo. At the time of my visit, Vitus and Larissa were separated by a barrier, but that was just a short term situation, and the two bears have been sharing the habitat most of the time since then.

Vitus looks for Larissa. They had just moved and were still separated.

 On the day of my visit, Vitus spent a lot of his time swimming laps, but would go up and check on Larissa through the grid every once in awhile.

King Vitus

The polar bear keepers give the bears enrichment and clicker training, important so they can examine the bears' eyes, ears and other body parts on a regular basis. Vitus has to have his paws inspected and treated.

Vitus at the window

Vitus likes to interact with the visitors. On the day of my visit, he was showing off for school groups.

Hello to the visitors. Vitus probably wonders where everyone has gone.

At the time of my visit, there was an elderly brown bear named Puppi living next door, but she died last year at the age of 34.

A side view of the polar bear habitat.

So what is all this controversy about Tierpark Neumünster?

The zoo in Neumünster, which was founded in 1951, has relied solely on funds from admission and concession sales to maintain the animals. With no money coming in, of course in the interview with the director Verena Kaspari, the question was asked what would happen when the money runs out and and there was no way to buy food. The answer shocked many, because as a last resort, the director said, they would have to kill some animals to feed the others, for they couldn't let the animals starve, if all else failed and there was no supply of food. She had prepared a list of which animals would have to go first if the situation were to become desperate. Some have criticized her for sensationalizing the situation, but it seems to have drawn attention to the plight of zoos in the time of a major pandemic.   

No one knew how long the shut down would last. If the zoos were closed all summer, with no income, what would that scenario look like? Now it looks like some zoos will open on a limited basis, which should help, but the future is still unwritten.

There is a famous, sad and true story from World War II about the elephants in the zoo in Tokyo Japan, who were slowly starved to death because there was no food. Of course that is not a good way to deal with the problem either. The book is called "Faithful Elephants."

The director of Tierpark Neumünster wanted to convey the dire financial straits of zoos during this time of crisis, with no money coming in and many hungry mouths to feed. Other businesses can shut their doors, and just leave everything to wait, but zoos must continue with medical care, food, enrichment, all things necessary for the well being of their animals.

As other news outlets picked up the story, it was sensationalized even further, with shocking headlines and sometimes even accompanied by a photo of Giant Pandas, just to grab attention.  

Until it can reopen, or government funding comes through, this zoo is depending upon donations, and the publicity has brought attention to the problem.

A nose bear, or Coati, in his playground.

The zoo has about 700 animals, many of which seemed to be hoof stock: goats, sheep, moose, bison, alpaca, reindeer.

There aren't many buildings at this zoo, mostly just shelters for the animals.  Some zoos have magnificent structures and lofty building plans for the future, but this zoos is rather basic, wonderful in its own humble way. 

Shaded paths meander through woody fenced in areas holding the animals, rather like a park, so it should be easy to socially distance at this zoo when it reopens. As I recall, the only building besides the entry is the monkey house.

Polar bears Vitus and Larissa are the only large predators at the zoo. There are no rhinos, elephants, hippos, giraffes, pandas, zebras or gorillas. 

A Maned Wolf pup

But the zoo does have many interesting and exotic animals: porcupines, maned wolves, arctic foxes, a monkey house with Macaques  and tamarins, Wildcat Lutzi and her kittens, a lynx named Kuder, nosebears, otters, Australian dingos, an eagle, capybaras, wild boars, raccoon dogs and raccoons.

The zoos also has Humboldt penguins and seals. The cost of buying fish for the penguins and seals has been a concern.

When the zoo reopens, there will not be any shows or talks or demonstrations. Social distancing will be required, with a limit on the number of people in the park, and people will probably have to wear masks. 

Pearl, the friendly little Arctic Fox from Denmark, at Neumünster

I did not take a lot of photos of the other animals, but I was charmed by the arctic foxes, who at Neumünster are friendly and approachable. I wondered if children sometimes fed little Pearl, for she seemed to be expecting me to pet her or give her a treat. As I walk along, she followed me on the other side of the fence, begging me for attention.

Pearl, the friendly Arctic Fox

Poldi, the arctic fox
Pearl and her mate Poldi had a roomy fenced in area, with many places to nap and hide. Pearl was bold, very outgoing. Rather like a little puppy.  She and Poldi had a litter of kits in 2018, I have heard.

The sign for Pearl, the Actic Fox from Denmark

Poldi was born in 2015. The sign talks about the seasonal change in color.

I also noticed that there were quite a few signs at the zoo, not just about the animal in general, but giving information about the individual animals, their names, and where they came from. This is a zoo with a staff who cares about their animals. 

Some zoos have financial support from sponsors, from the local government, from the state. Tierpark Neumünster has faced a greater challenge than other zoos, but all zoos are being impacted by this disaster.

Tierpark Neumünster is an accredited member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums. 

Update: Tierpark Neumünster has reopened with limitations on attendance, buildings closed, social distancing.

The Paw of Vitus