Basel Zoo Review: From Caging Humans to Saving Asses and Rhinos

Three Indian rhinoceros eating greenery at Basel Zoo, Switzerland, photo by Ivan Kralj

It was hard to spot it. The pygmy hippopotamus is much smaller than its cousin from the Nile, but it is still a mammal growing to above 200 kilos. However, immersed in water, strategically hidden behind the fallen tree trunk, this nocturnal animal was successfully evading the looks of Basel Zoo visitors.

Pygmy hippopotamus hiding in a pond at Basel Zoo, Switzerland, photo by Ivan Kralj
Is it a log? Is it a hippo?

There could have been another explanation for the pygmy hippo’s incognito mode. Zoo Basel, locally known as Zolli, made international headlines in 2009. Famous for the threatened species’ breeding program, the zoo welcomed the baby hippo Farasi to the world. But then the news broke that, due to limited space at the zoo, Farasi needed a new home, or else he would be killed and fed to the lions.

Even if respectable media reported on this story, Basel Zoological Garden quickly discarded the likelihood of Farasi becoming food for big cats.

Nevertheless, this episode made me think of a dichotomy of the zoos. On one hand, they are safe havens and a second chance for animals that humanity endangered or pushed towards the edge of extinction. On the other hand, they are still – prisons.

Would we describe jailed humans as happy because they get regular meals, entertainment time, and occasional spousal visits?

Basel Zoo proved quite successful in breeding animals in captivity. Zoo animals also typically live longer than those in the wild. These facts are often used to describe the quality of zoo animals’ life. But is that all there is to quality of life? Would we describe jailed humans as happy because they get regular meals, entertainment time, and occasional spousal visits?

Zoos are not my typical go-to attraction. Seeing animals behind bars reminds me I’m becoming an accomplice in this controversial concept. But my Basel friend had a voucher for the zoo, and I decided to check why it became the most visited paid attraction in Switzerland. Here’s my Basel Zoo review!

Basel Zoo history

People looking at caged monkeys at Basel Zoo, Switzerland, old photo, copyright Basel Zoo
The photo archive shows visiting the Basel Zoo was an important social event

Basel Zoo is the largest and the oldest zoo in Switzerland, displaying the world fauna since 1874. In its first year, the zoo attracted more visitors than there were citizens in Basel. It was love at first sight, and the beloved garden was given a nickname – Zolli.

At its beginnings, Basel Zoo had mainly native species from Switzerland and Europe, until the public demanded something more exotic. Camels, llamas, tapirs, and an Asian elephant, the famous Miss Kumbuk, were the first ones to feed that hunger.

The wealthy Basel residents were the ones who donated some of these animals. As explained in our guide to Basel’s best museums, they were prone to collecting world exotica since Early Modern Europe. Amazement by animals was no exception.

The first lions' enclosure in Basel Zoo, Switzerland, 1890s, copyright Basel Zoo
The first lions’ enclosures were worlds apart from those of today

In 1890, the people of Basel could have seen lions up close for the first time, and a year later even a lion cub.

But truly successful breeding programs developed in Basel Zoo in the second half of the 20th century. They witnessed the world’s first birth of an Indian rhinoceros in a zoo and the first greater flamingo hatch. The African elephant, sea anemone, gorilla, okapi, snow leopard, South African cheetah, European otter, were just some of the breeding successes in Basel zoo’s history.

Today, Zolli is involved in more than 40 international ex-situ breeding programs. Apart from the ones for Indian rhino and pygmy hippo, they run the programs for the lesser kudu, squirrel monkey, and Somali wild ass.

Besides baby-bringing storks, Death also visited the zoo. They’ve seen the saddest days in 1937 when an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease took many animals’ lives.

Check Basel Zoo’s newest and tallest baby girl – the giraffe Rohaya!

The darker side of Basel Zoo history – a black man show!

The growth of Basel Zoo would have never been possible without regular expansions. From the Antelope House that opened in 1910 as the zoo’s oldest building, to the unsuccessful construction project of the Ozeanium, a giant aquarium complex that Basel voted against in the 2019 referendum, Basel Zoo’s history brought more than one controversy.

Some of the expansions definitely provided more space for wild animals living enclosed within the city. The first expansion was towards Binningen in the south in 1884. The established area, today a flamingo enclosure, was called the Festival meadow in those days. It was a place for “celebratory activities”, as the zoo still calls them today. But surely it was not fun for everyone.

Poster from 1932 advertising the lip-plated women of Central Africa at Basel Zoo, Switzerland, copyright Basel Stadt State Archive
Central African women with plates in their lips were presented in 1932 as an endangered species at Basel Zoo

Next to the traveling menageries, from 1879 till 1935, Basel Zoo hosted more than 20 Völkerschauen – human shows. The explorers of the new worlds were bringing a variety of exotic creatures that fed Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Exhibiting black people as primitive species next to monkeys was considered self-evident. The savages were first kept in cages, and later in “native villages”, where they would be performing dances and war rituals. It was generating a large income for the zoo, but also strengthening the idea of the white man’s racial superiority. Black families were not allowed to leave the zoo grounds, and many died in harsh European winters in thatched graves that mimicked their homes.

With the League of Nations’ promotion of equality of all people, most of the human zoos became unwelcome in Europe in the late twenties. Still exhibiting Moroccans in 1935, Basel Zoo was among the last world zoos to stop participating in this appalling system of enslaving BIPOC as exotic animals. I couldn’t find the information if the zoo ever apologized for the lucrative exploitation of a black man.

Zoos as instruments of Nazi propaganda

“The people presented in the Völkerschauen were not only intended to entertain, but they were also the subject of scientific research with a partly racial background”, states Basel Zoo on its blog.

Does that remind you of the concentration camps for sub-humans and Josef Mengele’s experiments on dwarfs and twins? How did European zoos contribute to the idea of an Aryan race? Did “partly scientific research with a definite racial background” (to misquote the Basel zoo) support the Nazi evil?

Adolf Hitler visiting the lion house at the newly built zoo in Nuremberg with Willy Liebel, mayor of Nuremberg, on May 2nd 1939
Hitler visiting the lion-laden cages of Nuremberg Zoo in 1939
Adolf Hitler, often portrayed while petting fawns, loved German shepherds. This obedient dog breed was guarding Jews, Roma, disabled and other unworthy others in WW2 human zoos. It reminded Hitler of a wolf, his favorite animal. He often cited himself as a Wolf, and used its image in propaganda. What can we learn from Hermann Göring’s obsession with lions? The Führer’s Reichsmarschall kept seven young lions as pets! Just like Heinrich Himmler, the chicken farmer turned architect of the Holocaust, Göring thought of himself as an engaged activist for animal rights. Both Göring and Hitler sponsored zoological gardens and provided animals for them. They also supported the projects of the Heck zoologist family, obsessed with the de-extinction of species, with special attention to “German” animals. Lutz Heck worked on resurrecting the “Aryan cows” through cross-breeding the modern breeds and freeing them from racial impurities. He envisioned the kinderzoo where children could appreciate the Nazi world view through petting animals. Zoos had a crucial role in protecting the mental health of concentration camp staff too. For instance, the guards who spent days torturing prisoners behind the barbed wire of Buchenwald concentration camp could take a lunch break at a dedicated little zoo. The menagerie of cute monkeys, funny bears and chirping birds was financed through the “donations” of imprisoned Jews.

Basel Zoo animals telling the history of evolution

White-spotted jellyfish in aquarium of Basel Zoo, Switzerland, photo by Ivan Kralj
The robust white-spotted jellyfish lives in tropical marine areas but can withstand extreme fluctuations in temperature

The list of animals that call Basel Zoo their home is long. There are more than 6.000 tenants sharing lodging at Zolli. On 13 hectares, this animal kingdom lives in a variety of enclosures.

The Vivarium is right at the main entrance. Constructed as a 350-meter-long walkway in 1972, it still manages to draw you deep into the world of fish, reptiles, and penguins. Spiraling through the building, aquariums and terrariums tell the history of evolution.

Those successfully-bred anemones are home to lovely clownfish, a dream-come-true for Nemo-obsessed kids. The rich variety of colors and shapes in this world of shiny tropical fish, gentle sea horses and glowing jellyfish can cause quite a stir among children. Sensitive visitors could consider wearing earplugs.

The amazed little girl touching the aquarium with Nile crocodile at Basel Zoo, Switzerland, photo by Ivan Kralj
The Nile crocodile’s diet includes fish, reptiles, birds, and – mammals

Another popular spot of Basel Zoo is the Gamgoas house. Behind the thick glass wall, one can come face-to-face with a Nile crocodile. This impressive beast definitely shows interest in children, but luckily it’s on full board at the zoo.

Older visitors seem to show greater interest in the large windows looking out to the lions’ territory. It’s a safe place to lay around and share some lazy moments with the king of the African savannah and his female pack.

The Gamgoas house (meaning the place ‘where lions are found’) is just a part of the Etosha enclosure. Opened in 2001, this was Basel Zoo’s first themed area, putting together animals of the African savannah’s food cycle.

Besides predators such as wild dogs and cheetahs, this enclosure named after a national park in Namibia, is also home to insect-eating birds and locust swarm presented through their entire life cycle. Especially happy about their procreation are the meerkats, but even if carnivores, these always curious animals will show great interest during the porcupine’s feeding time too. Funny to observe!

If you want to see marine mammals in their natural habitat, check this Tenerife whale watching trip!

Ostrich, zebra and hippo walk into a bar

African elephant standing in the concrete surrounding of the Tembea enclosure at Basel Zoo, Switzerland, photo by Ivan Kralj
The concrete jungle of African elephants’ enclosure

When it was introduced in 1992, the Africa enclosure was Basel Zoo’s first exhibit with a new concept: three species in the same habitat. Ostriches, zebras and hippopotamuses had their ups and downs, including a rare accident in 2004. The zebra fell into the hippos’ pond and got killed in front of a live audience. The Africa exhibit provided a valuable experience for shaping later enclosures where animals shared space.

Fowls and rats probably shouldn’t worry about having African elephants for roommates. The visitors’ favorites rightfully deserved Basel Zoo’s newest construction. Tembea enclosure opened in 2017 and provided more than 5.000 square meters for elephants, including a large outdoor area. While it’s certainly a sizable space equipped with wallows, pools, showers and “entertainment facilities”, a lonely elephant standing motionless in the middle of this concrete heaven provided a rather sad image.

Snow leopard laying down in his enclosure at Basel Zoo, Switzerland, photo by Ivan Kralj
Snow leopard becoming one with the concrete “rock”

I could’ve only compared it to a bored snow leopard in the zone called Sauter Garden. The cat that typically covers 100 square kilometers in the Himalayan mountains, can see its entire home from one spot here. Resting its head between its paws, it didn’t portray a much more exciting life purpose than one of its friends ending in fur coats.

On the other side of the fake rock, macaque monkeys seemed equally disinterested. I’ve seen quite many of them in Southeast Asia. These ones, blended into a gray and a rather dead environment, did not exude any natural cheekiness or even action.

The gloomy atmosphere of the Sauter Garden, shared in the habitats of pygmy hippopotamus and black-footed penguins, slightly bettered in the Rhino enclosure. These resistant animals in pre-historic-looking armor seemed to do quite well in Basel Zoo that has been successfully breeding them since 1956. Indian rhinoceroses share their space with Visayan warty pigs and small-clawed otters.

In Africa, you can stay in hotels set right in the kingdom of wild animals. These are the best wildlife lodges in Ethiopia!

Basel Zoo’s gorilla fame

Lion tamarin in a cage of Basel Zoo, Switzerland, photo by Ivan Kralj
A family group of lion tamarins can have a territory of up to 40 hectares in the Brazilian rainforest. That’s three times the size of the entire Basel Zoo!

Zoo Basel is famous for the gorilla breeding program. In 1959, Goma arrived, the first gorilla born in a European zoo. She was raised by humans, at the zoo director’s house, under the media spotlight. Later, she successfully joined her kind, and lived until 2018, almost reaching the age of 59.

In 1971, Goma gave birth to Tamtam, the first second-generation baby gorilla born in a zoo. The father was Jambo, another Basel-born ape who rose to fame, in 1986. A 5-year-old boy fell into a gorilla compound at Jersey Zoo, and the gentle giant cared for him.

The gorilla breeding program had more successes in Zolli, supporting the survival of this critically endangered species, threatened by poaching and habitat destruction. With the newest baby born in 2019, there should be seven apes in Zoo Basel’s gorilla family today.

Just like chimpanzees and orangutans, gorillas have a dedicated net-covered outdoor space at Geigy enclosure. They didn’t show up during my visit.

A sad-looking chimpanzee holding a rope in the Monkey house at Basel Zoo, Switzerland, photo by Ivan Kralj
Petrified chimpanzee in a petrified version of an African rainforest

Chimps were hanging at the playground quarters of the Monkey house. This renovated experience park seemed to stimulate the physical activity of spider monkeys, lion tamarins and squirrel monkeys looking for food. But it was a chimpanzee that was carved into my memory.

Sitting on the edge of the balcony, with a firm grip on a rope, and head nested on its arm, this old chimp was staring through the glass wall. Maybe somewhere far, maybe deep into our eyes. It was hard to ignore this frozen gaze.

Surrounded by sad trees made of concrete and adrenaline park that had no resemblance to tropical rainforest, this empty look of our closest relative was unsettling.

There are natural enemies that are common to all critically endangered great apes in Basel Zoo. And the chimp was just looking at one of them.

Hello Kitty, meet the giraffes!

Two giraffes in front of the Antelope house in Basel Zoo, Switzerland, photo by Ivan Kralj
Baslers love their giraffes, they even adorn the Basel Zoo logo

There was no monkey enclosure at the beginnings of Basel Zoo. Their first ape, the female orangutan Kitty, lived in the Antelope house since its opening in 1910.

Her first neighbors were ostriches and antelopes. The main attraction of the house had to be giraffes, but they died even before they started their trip to Switzerland.

But in 2012 giraffes did move in! Two males arrived from Tanzania, and quickly draw public attention. Even today, the Basel Zoo logo shows two of these long-necked animals.

Giraffes share their enclosure with lesser kudus and okapis. But there is another renovation of the zoo’s oldest building going on, so we can observe only the zoo’s tallest animals outdoors, from an elevated pathway.

The pygmy zebu family at Kinderzoo, Basel Zoo, Switzerland, photo by Ivan Kralj
The pygmy zebus are native to Sri Lanka, but children can find them in Basel’s Kinderzoo

The Aviary is another enclosure under construction. Encounters with jungle birds should be possible again from 2022. Until then, the colony of around 150 European flamingos should satisfy your need for some exotic feathers.

Furry-looking silkie chicken might attract the young visitors at the Kinderzoo unless they will be too occupied with petting the squeaky miniature pig family. Close encounters with domestic animals at one of the most kid-friendly zoos in Europe have been possible since 1977!

The last enclosure worth mentioning is Australis, home to animals from the smallest continent. The western gray kangaroos, descendants of animals that have been living at Basel Zoo since 1908, are the main stars. But Australian brush-turkeys, geckos, black widow spiders, cane toads, stick insects and tree pythons complement your trip to the Land Down Under.

One city in Japan fully integrated its four-legged citizens. Check how deer conquered Nara!

Zoo Basel as a big restaurant

The curious meerkat checking the content of the bucket used by animal keeper feeding the porcupine in Basel Zoo, Switzerland, photo by Ivan Kralj
The curious meerkat would prefer a bucket full of locusts

Every year, animals at Zoo Basel eat more than 300 tons of various hay, 200 tons of vegetables, 100 tons of fruit, and 60 tons of meat (some animals are not vegetarians after all!).

Visiting the zoo during the feeding time is an interesting experience if you’re lucky. I was fortunate to visit the porcupine enclosure just when it was following the animal keeper with a bucket full of veggies, like a shadow. Every time a meerkat would show too much interest in its zucchinis and potatoes, the porcupine would spread the spines.

However, in the time of the COVID pandemic, Zoo Basel had to cancel the fixed feeding times of popular animals such as sea lions or pelicans, in order to avoid crowding.

Black-footed penguins at Basel Zoo, Switzerland, photo by Ivan Kralj
The regular Penguin walk through Basel Zoo is canceled during the pandemic

If you yourself get hungry while visiting this large garden (and you might end up spending hours and hours exploring it), Basel Zoo restaurant will cover you!

Elefantenblick, as its name clearly suggests, offers a view into the elephant enclosure. Additionally, there is a self-service restaurant and a cafeteria with simple snacks. But all of these are closed at the moment of writing. Always check whether the situation with coronavirus has affected these businesses if you plan to have a brunch at Basel Zoo!

You can always consult the Basel Zoo website and find answers to frequently asked questions about masks at the zoo, restricted areas and activities, etc.

Zolli’s road to sustainability

Zoo Basel occupies a special place in the hearts of Basel citizens. They were always there to help when the hardships pressed their Zolli. But to be able to keep its mission alive, the zoo needs to constantly grow. It is a hungry beast itself!

Caravan warriors of the Mahdi performing in Basel Zoo in 1898, Switzerland, copyright Basel Stadt city archive
Mahdi warriors performing at Basel’s human zoo in 1898

What started in 1874 with the purpose of exhibiting local wildlife, mainly birds and mammals, quickly got into financial troubles. Basel Zoo had to increase the public interest, and purchasing exotic animals was a solution. The public responded well.

Keeping animals alive without them being able to find their own food in nature is an expensive business. When new hardships pressed the zoo and wildlife merchants such as Carl Hagenbeck, the light at the end of this tunnel was found in exhibiting people. This shameful episode of the New Imperialism was cultivating racism behind ethnology.

While we still remember the names of animals such as Miss Kumbuk, Jambo, or Farasi, most of the sad victims of human trafficking remained nameless. Unless they ended up tragically like Ota Benga, a Congo slave who committed suicide at the end of his zoo-career.

Imprisoning people of other races and cultures in a human zoo brought a lot of money to Zolli. The public responded well.

Clown fish, sea anemone and other marine life in aquaium of the Vivarium at Basel Zoo, Switzerland, photo by Ivan Kralj
With a shattered dream of Ozeanium, Basel Zoo will have to be satisfied with keeping sea creatures at Vivarium

With no room to expand, Basel Zoo had to find a new source of income in the new millennium too. They imagined – the Ozeanium. The plan was to invest 100 million dollars into a large marine aquarium for “nature conservation and environmental education”.

Even if the Basel City parliament approved the project, animal activists challenged the idea to a referendum. For the first time in Basel Zoo history, the public did not respond well to capturing and exhibiting wildlife. The respectable 55 % of Baslers said No to Ozeanium.

Basel Zoo Review – Conclusion

The zoos of the 21st century cannot rely on the methods of the 19th century. The public requires more justification for the idea of zoo animals as mascots of the beauty of the world we “need to save”.

The public needs greater assurances that visiting a zoo is indeed saving animals in their natural habitat. Otherwise, zoos are jeopardized to end up like animal circuses, a relic of the past

Modern architecture and voluntary conservation contribution of 1 Franc in every 21-Francs-worth admission ticket are simply not enough. We as the public need greater assurances that visiting a zoo is indeed saving animals in their natural habitat. Otherwise, zoos are jeopardized to end up like animal circuses, a relic of the past.

While Basel Zoo has a great reputation for breeding endangered species in captivity, it will need to continue looking for ethical solutions that will not see individual animals as instruments of propaganda. Zoo-born animals, caged and exhibited for their whole life, cannot be a “small” sacrifice for a greater goal.

Squirrel and birds sharing the enclosure at Basel Zoo, Switzerland, photo by Ivan Kralj
Basel Zoo does a great job at exhibiting a variety of species in the same enclosure. It’s as close as a zoo can get to nature, except for the bars

Instead of caging people who destroy their habitats or kill entire species for lucrative gain, we imprison animals we wish to protect. We finance this protection through visiting the zoos, as an ethical justification of the entertainment. All of that, in the era when National Geographic already filmed it, and Google is the best friend of our education on exotic beasts.

Zoos nowadays are still a controversial concept to me. I prefer seeing animals in the wilderness. Having them on display that jumps us over from Antarctica to Africa in just a few steps is a monument to our laziness and superiority.

As for Farasi, the surplus hypo from the beginning of this article, he survived the destiny of becoming a lions’ snack in Basel Zoo. Eventually, he was transferred to a rhino reserve in South Africa. In 2011, he broke out of the protected area and was attacked – by a lion.

 

Zoo Basel Info

Basel Zoo address: Zoologischer Garten Basel AG, Binningerstrasse 40, 4054 Basel

Basel Zoo map: find it on this link

How to get to Basel Zoo?

Flamingo walking through the shallow water in Basel Zoo, Switzerland, photo by Ivan Kralj
Basel Zoo is famous for its flamingo breeding program

The closest tram stop to the main entrance of Basel Zoo is Zoo Bachletten, served by trams number 1 and 8.

Tram number 2 will bring you from Basel city center to Zoo Dorenbach station, the southern entrance to Basel Zoo.

Zoo Basel parking

If you’re coming to Basel Zoo by car, follow the directions to the southern part of the city on GPS. The number of parking spaces at Basel Zoo entrance is limited, so you can also check Elisabethen car park and Steinen car park in the vicinity.

Basel Zoo ticket price

Father and a child observe the lioness behind the glass at Basel Zoo, Switzerland, photo by Ivan Kralj
Children below the age of 6 have a free entrance to Basel Zoo

Basel Zoo tickets for adults (aged 25 to 61) cost 21 Swiss Francs (19 Euros). There is a discount available for children and young people (aged 6 to 24), and for them, the Basel Zoo entry price is 15 CHF (14 Euros). Senior citizens (aged 62 and over) pay 19 CHF (18 Euros), while families get in for 43 CHF (40 Euros).

If you purchase online tickets for Basel Zoo, you can get a 30 percent discount!

Those who arrive by SBB Railway, schools, and groups of 100 people are also eligible for a rebate.

Basel Zoo annual pass costs 90 CHF (83 Euros) for an adult and 160 CHF (148 Euros) for families.

If you want to support Basel Zoo and get exclusive treatment in return, there are season tickets for patrons, and cost 1000 CHF (924 Euros).

On June 24th, the zoo’s first major donor Johannes Beck is celebrated, and Basel Zoo stays open until 10 pm, with a free entry after 4 pm.

Basel Zoo opening times

The jawning African wild dog at Basel Zoo, Switzerland, photo by Ivan Kralj
The African wild dogs prefer the early morning and late evening hours. Midday is a time for yawning!

Basel Zoo opening hours depend on the time of the year. In summer (May to August), the zoo is open from 8 am until 6:30 pm. The Zoo closes an hour earlier in the winter months (November to February). In spring (March, April) and autumn (September, October), the zoo opens at 9 am and closes at 6 pm.

Besides the mentioned Beck Day, Basel Zoo stays open until midnight on Zolli Nights. These dates vary every year.

Zoo Basel links

For further details, consult the informative Basel Zoo website. You can also follow Zoo Basel on Instagram and Youtube channel. If you want to immerse yourself entirely in this zoological garden, their Facebook page occasionally publishes live videos.

Where to stay when visiting Basel Zoo?

For the selection of the best places to stay near Basel Zoo, check the hotel offer on this link.

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Basel Zoo is Switzerland's most visited paid attraction. This zoological garden is also famous for its breeding programs for endangered animal species such as Indian rhinoceros. But can humans sort their mess of intervening into nature by imprisoning animals worth saving? We ask some complex ethical questions in this Basel Zoo review!

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Ivan Kralj

Editor

Award-winning journalist and editor from Croatia

8 Comments
  1. European zoos can be under rated! What a fascinating history and interesting story! I’m totally interested in the Warsaw zoo as well!

    1. Zoos are indeed museums – the collections of the past times (Basel Zoo is even a member of the Swiss Museums Association). But every window to the past (which had different moral measures than the present) always leaves an open question of when will it itself become morally unbearable. Just check what’s going on with art and ethnographic museums that acted like scavengers of colonial worlds’ treasures that do not belong to us. Humans seem to act like predators until it becomes unsustainable. The same way that nature controls the balance of predator numbers in nature, it is human nature that will have a final say on the predator practices of the civilization.

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