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As part of the Corona support measures, the Federal Council already decided in March 2020 to provide financial support to museums, including natural history and zoological museums, from a cultural fund created specifically for this purpose. In the process, zoos and animal parks were explicitly excluded from the support. This was done with the argument that zoos and animal parks were only recreational facilities. Since then, zoos, aquariums, animal and wildlife parks have been struggling for recognition in Bern, for acceptance of what zoos do for society, and thus not least for financial support.

In the broadest sense, culture refers to everything that humans create themselves. This is in contrast to nature, which is not created or changed by man. In a more general sense, cultural achievements mean all formative transformations of an already existing material, for example in technology, architecture, agriculture (agriculture, animal husbandry, animal breeding), food preparation, fine arts and intellectual forms such as music, language, morality, religion, law, economics and science. It is therefore interesting to ask in which cultural areas zoos have points of contact. Hereby we want to address the cultural achievements in animal husbandry and breeding, architecture, man-made landscape design as well as morality.

“Museums are places where people meet,” said the director of the museum Kunsthaus Zürich, Christoph Becker, in a recent interview in the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”. A simple and clear statement: the museum Kunsthaus is there for people. And at the zoo, do people meet there too? Are zoos for people too? The distinction between certain museums and zoos and animal parks is often quite blurred. Some historical museums keep more or less rare breeds of domestic animals, others show live fish, amphibians and invertebrates in terrariums and aquariums. But zoos also have classic museum sides: Exhibitions on biodiversity, on the rainforest and other ecosystems, on specific animal species and their behaviour, on current issues of climate and environmental protection are often seen in our zoos. In addition, there are also locally specific presentations such as the landslide museum in the Goldau Nature and Animal Park or the exhibition on the history of forestry in the Zurich Wilderness Park. In La Chaux-de-Fonds, the government made an interesting decision in 2018: The Zoo du Bois du Petit-Château and the Natural History Museum were merged and the museum is moving to the zoo grounds. The opening of the new museum is planned for 2021.

The world has changed and zoos with it

The long humane history of animal husbandry, later also in zoos, animal and wildlife parks, is cultural history. The keeping and breeding of wild animals until they became pets, the treatment of animals in both positive and negative ways, the appreciation but also the disdain for animals have historical, religious or cultural backgrounds. Today’s treatment of animals may, perhaps somewhat exaggeratedly, show how “mature”, how developed and humane a society actually is. In the sixties of the last century, chimpanzees were still dressed in little skirts in the zoo and had to sit politely together with the keeper at a small table. In the meantime, our animal protection law demands that the dignity of the animal must not be violated. Such a presentation would no longer be legally possible today, but also morally no Swiss zoo director would think of presenting such a show, which from today’s point of view is completely out of place. The world has changed and with it the zoos.

Animals have always been used as status symbols, just think of heraldry with all the animal symbols from the wild boar (Porrentruy JU) to the eagle (Genève) and the lion (Winterthur), to name a few examples. But living wild animals as symbols of a region or a city are also of emotional value. What would the canton of Graubünden be without its free-living ibexes? These were once extinct and are now back thanks to breeding in animal parks.

If you want to understand the mentality of a city or region, it might be worth visiting a zoo. Visit a zoo in London, Ljubljana, Barcelona or Zurich and you will immediately recognise the subtle cultural differences. Not only in the zoo restaurants, but also in the labelling of the enclosures, the landscape architecture, the cleanliness, the presentation of the animals, the appearance of the staff.

Zoo architecture as part of cultural history

Zoos, animal and wildlife parks are built for people. However, at the beginning of their history, they were usually not built for everyone: Vienna’s Schönbrunn Zoo, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was founded in 1752 and served as a recreational space for the Austrian royal family and for research and education for the employed scientists. Most zoos, however, are based on civic initiatives by individuals, family businesses or associations.

The first documented keeping of bears in the city of Bern goes back to 1441, when the animals were shown at the Käfigturm until they were moved to the well-known Bärengraben (bear pit) in 1857. Today, the bears have a new, spacious enclosure right next door on the banks of the Aare, a cultural achievement based on morals, science and architecture. The old bear pit is considered a cultural asset of national importance.

With a history of over 150 years, the Zurich Wildlife Park and the associated Langenberg Wildlife Park is the oldest zoo in Switzerland. In 1506, 1553 and 1557, the present area of the Langenberg was acquired in stages by the city of Zurich and provided firewood for the city. Finally, the city forester Carl Anton Ludwig von Orelli realised his idea of establishing a wildlife park. In view of the over-hunted forests, he wanted to give the city population a place of recreation where they could meet native animals.

Today’s Australia House at Zurich Zoo was built in 1965 by the former Zoo Director Prof. Dr. Heini Hediger, initially as the so-called “Africa House”. It is strongly reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House. Its peculiarity is animal and visitor rooms without right-angled corners. The director believed that right angles were detrimental to animal welfare. All walls, roofs and fixtures therefore had to be rounded. The house is a unique witness to zoo architecture, but also to the development at the time towards keeping wild animals in a manner appropriate to their species. The building is listed in the City of Zurich’s inventory of buildings worthy of protection. Incidentally, what is being created today, be it animal houses, garden designs and man-made sections of the landscape, are also cultural achievements and some of them will perhaps be recognised and protected as cultural assets in a few decades’ time.

Historical or modern garden architecture with strict forms, box trees trimmed back in rows, gates overgrown with roses and fountains are considered garden culture. Landscape architecture with man-made landscapes that are as close to nature as possible, with artificial rocks, with creeks modelled on nature and with the interior design of tropical halls are highly specialised achievements of landscape designers. As with classical garden architecture, this is also a cultural asset.

The Basel Zoological Garden is one of the older zoos in Europe, founded in 1874, and today it is impossible to imagine Basel without it. The Zolli is a social phenomenon, rooted in all levels of society, and at the political level the Department of Culture of the Presidential Department of Basel-Stadt is responsible for the zoo.

No employee of the Federal Office of Culture (FOC) would want to claim that the world-famous dioramas with the naturalistic staging of mostly African habitats for the prepared animals in the Natural History Museum in Bern do not represent a cultural achievement that should be protected. If, however, these dead animals were alive and living in equally ingeniously staged habitats in a zoo, then this institution would, on the other hand, be regarded somewhat disparagingly as an amusement park by some federal officials and federal politicians. Somehow one can’t get rid of the thought that double standards are applied in politics.

Animal husbandry as a custom and tradition

The domestication of wild animals, from the wolf to the Bezoar goat to the Bankiva chicken, is a cultural achievement of mankind. The keeping and care of the Ehringen cows by the locals in the Valais and the use of the animals for cow fights is considered a cultural “custom”. Likewise, the Goldau Nature and Animal Park participates in the breeding of this wonderful breed of cattle. Rare breeds of domestic animals such as the Alpine pig survive with dedicated private individuals, with associations and in zoos and animal parks. Here, too, zoos make their contribution to the preservation of a cultural asset. What would Zurich’s zoo be without its lions, what would Bern’s zoo be without its bears, what would Basel’s vivarium in the Zolli be without its plumed basilisks? What would Jerusalem be without the biblical zoo, what Monaco be without its aquarium founded by Prince Albert I., incidentally with its official name: Musée océanographique de Monaco. All examples where the reasons for keeping wild animals have grown out of symbolic, local-specific or religious-cultural desires and thus, from this point of view, definitely have cultural significance.

Do zoos contribute to society?

Being close to nature brings a number of benefits, such as improved immune defences. Direct contact with animals has been shown to have a positive impact on health. One way to be close to animals is to visit zoos or wildlife parks. Here, opportunities for human-animal contact can be created, ensuring that the animals’ well-being is not harmed. What is the impact of a tour of a zoo? Researchers at the University of Gloucestershire found that visitors’ mood improved after the walk and levels of the stress hormone cortisol decreased over the course of the walk. The strength of this relationship varied with the quality of the human-animal interaction. The decrease in stress levels was particularly marked in visitors who had previously indicated that they enjoyed being in nature and who considered the protection of nature and animals to be important. It is possible that a gallery owner might experience a similar situation as a museum visitor at the Kunsthaus.

Zoos have and will increasingly play an important role in the conservation of nature and biodiversity on our planet. They are the most visited institutions in the world and as such they are a great tool to reach a diverse audience. As the third largest contributor to global conservation with around 320 million Swiss francs per year, the role of zoos must additionally increase due to the great extinction of species. All zoos together have enormous expertise in how to keep wild animal species and bring them to reproduction. This knowledge is important in order to be able to save animal species that are on the brink of extinction at all. However, a prerequisite for this is that the existence of zoos is not impeded by anti-zoo activists and philosophers and that the public and politicians finally recognise and value the work of zoos, especially their commitment to education.