Vet Med Students 2011 Study Abroad in Germany

Vet Med Students 2011 Study Abroad in Germany

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  • Day 12, Berlin, Friday, May 27, 2011

    The schedule for our last day in Germany was to include a visit to the Robert Koch Institute (the CDC of Germany) as well as the Berlin Zoo. However, due to a mass outbreak of food-borne E.coli that had resulted in four deaths within the first week, the Koch Institute was unable to accommodate a visit. As a result, we were given the morning off and Maren and I spent it getting a little extra sleep and going for a run through the area of Berlin surrounding the hotel. It was a lovely morning, bright and sunny with a temperature of about 72 degrees. We quite enjoyed it as it gave us the opportunity to witness typical city life in Berlin as well as discover a few sites that we had not yet seen before such as the Jewish Museum.

    The group arrived at the Berlin Zoo at around 1 pm at the Lion Gate entrance on Hardenbergplatz. The Berlin Zoo (Zoologischer Garten Berlin) is the oldest and most well known zoo in Germany. It is also the ninth oldest Zoo in all of Europe. We were given an hour and a half to explore the zoo on our own before meeting for an official tour with a zoo representative.

    After our quick individual exploration we were met by Dr. Renate Foerg. The zoo’s veterinarians had been having a rough day and were sadly dealing with the loss of a 2.5 year old elephant that had died that morning from herpes. Therefore, Dr. Foerg, who received her PhD in zoology, was kind enough to be our escort and guide for the day. She began with a little history on the zoo and explained that it first opened in 1844 and was the first zoo to be built in Germany and the ninth to be built in all of Europe. The zoo’s first animals were donated by Frederick William IV, the King of Prussia. The King had inherited the animals from his father and as he did not care much for the menagerie, the horticultural director Peter Joseph, the explorer Martin Hinrich Lichtenstein and Alexander von Homboldt committed themselves to using the animals to start a zoo for the people of Berlin.

    Dr. Foerg also described the difficulties the zoo underwent during the Second World War. Prior to the war, the zoo had been filled with 1,196 different animals. However, heavy attacks caused most of the buildings to be destroyed. Furthermore, if the animals were not killed from the bombings many were lost to starvation as providing food to the animals during wartime became increasingly difficult. Dr. Foerg described how many of the Berliners would bring food to feed to the animals in an attempt to aid the zoo. Sadly, only 91 animals survived the destruction and troubles of the war.

    Foerg also explained that with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, reunified Germany actually found itself with two zoos- one in East Germany and the Berlin Zoo in West Germany. The East Germany zoo is said to be very large but as it is a bit away from the city it receives less visitors. Today, both zoos are under the same management but work to expand what is best for them individually.  

    We began our guided tour by visiting the panda exhibit and meeting Bao Bao, who at 33 years is the oldest male panda in captivity. Bao Bao had been gifted to the Berlin zoo by the Chinese government when he was two years old. He had arrived as a pair with a female panda but unfortunately the two do not get along. As we watched Bao Bao happily chew his bamboo (imported from southern France!) we learned from Dr. Foerg that panda breeding is very difficult because the female panda’s cycle is only 72 hours long and she is only receptive for 24 hours. There is great concern for pandas in the wild knowing how difficult their breeding situation is and also that their habitat is being destroyed. I believe we all left the panda exhibit enamored with the beautiful black and white animal and with concern for it’s future in the wild.

    Our next stop was the cathouse. Dr. Foerg explained that a new facility was to be built in the future but the previous budget had been used to build the new birdhouse. The meerkats were the first to attract our attention. They were happily guarding a few very young pups in an enclosure that looked as if it were taken straight out of Africa. The meerkat colony is composed of only one breeding pair who have between 4-5 litters a year. An interesting aspect of the meerkat social structure is that the other members of the colony do a large amount of the care for the pups.


    A cat that I had never seen before was the sand cat; a small wild desert cat found in Africa and Asia. I found them to be truly adorable as they had a lovely sandy colored fur, large widespread ears, greenish eyes and black bands on their legs and tail.

    While admiring the sand cats we heard the grumble and roar of a much larger cat- a lion. While the lions have a large and very naturally designed outdoor enclosure, they were currently indoors as it was close to feeding time. The male lion was quite a site to be seen. He was large and regal and, having never been so close to a male lion before, a bit intimidating. Dr. Foerg discussed how the zoo had four adult lions and four cubs (two 7-8 month old males and two young cubs born about a month ago). The two youngest cubs had just been let out to visit their mother. They were absolutely adorable and full of fun as they bounced around the cage and pestered their mother. Unfortunately, all four cubs are inbred and belong to a brother and sister pair. The zoo is in discussion about what to do with the lions, as there is not enough space for all the new cubs once they get older.


    Across from the lions were two different leopard species, two beautiful jaguars (one spotted and one black), and two Asian tigers. Dr. Foerg said that one of the goals of the Berlin zoo was to breed endangered animals. However, with the habitats of animals becoming increasingly destroyed a new problem exists in that there is no longer a place to move the animals into the wild.

    Speaking of endangered animals, the Berlin Zoo is home to a large herd of davidhirsch deer that are extinct in the wild. Used for their meat, the deer had been hunted to extinction in the wild except for a group kept by the king of China for hunting. The British bought the deer from the Chinese in an attempt to conserve the species. The Berlin Zoo is proud to have a healthy breeding group and aid in the conservation of the davidshirsch.

    In passing the polar bear and wolf exhibits were saddened to hear that the famous polar bear, Knut, had recently passed away in March. Knut was born in captivity in 2006. Rejected from his mother, he was raised by zookeepers and was the first polar bear cub to survive past infancy at the Berlin Zoo in more than 30 years. The little bear became a favorite and a symbol for the Berlin Zoo. Knut died unexpectedly at the age of four from a seizure and subsequent drowning.

    My favorite exhibit was that for the hippopotamuses. Built in 1997, the large, state of the art enclosure took three years and cost millions of euros to build. The outdoor facilities has a large circular pool with viewing area above and bellow as well as a lush outdoor area. The state of the art water filtration system cleans the water every four hours. We were able to go behind the scenes and see the feed room where the hippo’s meals of hay and sugar beet pellets is prepared as well as the large loaves of bread that the hippos are often given as a tasty treat. Walking up to the viewing area we watched as the three young hippos bounced through the water (as hippo’s don’t swim!) with their father. The current hippos are a good breeding pair, but like the lions, there is concern about not having enough space for the young hippos once they get larger. I greatly enjoyed the personality of the large mother hippo. She kept opening her large mouth to us in hopes of a loaf of bread and seemed disappointed and annoyed when we didn’t produce the treat. As the group walked out of the hippo exhibit we all gathered around a life-sized bronze memorial statue of the great hippo Knautschke. Knautschke was one of the few animals to survive the war and is known for his escape from the zoo and his two-day stay at the Bahnhof after part of his building was destroyed. Knautschke is also famous for his pairing with a female from the Leipzig Zoo who was allowed to cross the Iron Curtain to breed with Knautschke in Berlin. The big hippo sired 34 offspring and died in 1988.

    We all greatly enjoyed the zoo and are truly appreciative of Dr. Foergs time and the knowledge she shared with us. I think it was beneficial for us to not only be able to view the animals but learn about and appreciate the efforts and challenges the zoos faces in trying to care for their animals. The people of Berlin are very proud of their zoo and I hope that their support is everlasting so that the zoo may continue in it’s endeavors of promoting the breeding of endangered species and the development of happy and healthy facilities for the animals.

    On May 28, 2011, most of the group returned to the US. Some students continued their travel through Europe.

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