Tucked away in the North-east of Holland not far from the German border is the town of Emmen. It is a neat and orderly place, walk a mile in any direction from the centre and you are on the outskirts of the town. Emmen is benign and welcoming but totally unexceptional save for one aspect… it’s world-famous zoological garden. It would not be an exaggeration to state that this town seems to revolve around its zoo. Like so many communities around the world a square lies in the very centre of town in Emmen this same square doubles as the entrance area and perambulatory plaza to the zoo itself. Like many city zoos parking space is a great problem and Emmen solves this with a ‘park and ride’ scheme from the edge of town into the zoo.
Noorder Dierenpark (to give Emmen its Dutch name) can normally rely on around 1.5 million visitors per annum. So what is it that pulls so many people into a relatively obscure region? Well around thirty years ago Emmen decided to reinvent itself in accordance with a predominantly educational philosophy and the latest trends in zoo design. This met with massive acclaim and by 1980 the zoo had metamorphosed from an undistinguished menagerie into a world-class establishment thought by many to be the embodimant of a modern zoo. Now we must consider that this takes us to a point which in itself is twenty years old. What of the Emmen Zoo in year 2000?
Well, a good zoo never stands still and developments are ongoing at Emmen as they are everywhere else but it would be a fair reflection to state that the identity of the zoo remains within its radical period over two decades ago. Certainly it can be said that. Emmen works to a different protocol than most others in that the emphasis is firmly on education and that the zoo is in part a museum and biopark as well as a living zoological collection. Part of the education process is undoubtedly regarded as the display of the animals and to this end Emmen concentrates on spectacular exhibits of fewer species. No massive emphasis is placed on conservational work but obviously such a zoo will become involved in those species that are managed by EEPs and the like. There is no doubt at this zoo that the animal connoisseur must take his or her pleasure from criteria other than rarities and unusual species - this is easy to do.
The zoo has a zoogeographic layout that is not strictly adhered to – it can be very difficult under these circumstances to accommodate every situation. So we find, for instance, a wonderful job in breeding False Gavials to be taking place in the Africa House. This same Africa House is then separated from the main African area by the Asian Elephants. The zoo does have something of a problem in that it is not large in area (20 acres) and is surrounded by urban paraphernalia therefore zoogeography can become something of a Rubic’s Cube in terms of practical implementation.
It seems to me that Emmen is particularly famous for three things at the moment:- the African Plains exhibit, the Biochrome and breeding elephants. The African Plains is a very large moated paddock with a sizeable hillock in the middle which manages to combine, fairly peaceably, Girraffe, White Rhino, Zebra, Ostrich, Brindled Gnu, Impala, Springbok and Elipsen Waterbuck amongst more occasional inhabitants. Much attention has been paid to lines of sight and hiding places for the smaller species. It must work well because most species kept here have reproduced. Overlooking all this is a restaurant terrace offering wonderful views with good food – quite the place to take a break.
The Biochrome is the most famous manifestation of Emmen’s museum aspect. In truth I find this aspect of the zoo somewhat overstated, after all about a hundred miles away Amsterdam’s Artis has been combining geology, botany, astronomy and other sciences with zoology for over a century before Emmen got around to it and in many ways it is still a more complete representative of these matters than its country cousin.
The Biochrome is billed as an introduction to the zoo and principally seeks to explain and illustrate the evolution of life on Earth. There are some geological exhibits, a small aquarium with Lemon Sharks, dinosaur skeletons and models, an exhibition of flowers and insects and one for evolution of the mammals. Everything is done very well in what one might term a contemporary style and it does rather set the tone for what is about to follow
Actually the Elephant enclosure is not too far away and this is a zoo which has had great success in breeding Asian Elephants with five in the last two years alone. The accommodation is unusual to say the least comprising a large moated island and a separate, much smaller one. The latter is principally for the bull, Naing Thein, apparently (and I still almost don’t believe this) he is lowered on a ramp into the inside of the island for indoor housing. In fact can anyone confirm this? It almost beggars belief, for instance what happens when he is in Musth? The females and calves live on the larger island with access to housing underneath the Asian Pavilion. This island contains a large rocky outcrop with a large waterfall, in fact the whole of the enclosure is decidedly montane in aspect with numerous small rock formations. To be honest, you would expect Barbary Sheep to come scurrying along at any moment yet the zoo litmus test is usually a very simple one – it works.
Emmen tends to specialise in large groups of socially relevant animals, ten Common Hippopotamus or, what appears to be, one hundred Hamadryas Baboons. Seen under such circumstances these species can take on a new dimension and it is a pleasure to observe such groups at length
There are a number of other excellent exhibits. I particularly like the South American Free Flight Aviary, nothing architecturally outstanding just a huge area of full grown trees streams, pools and rocks nicely planted. Only around twenty species of bird here but again large colonies of many such as Scarlet Ibis and Roseate Spoonbill. The birds are moved indoors in Winter. This aviary leads into an indoor tropical glass house termed ‘AmeriCasa’ which also includes a nocturnal section. Quite good but one of those tropical halls that seems to have the balance a little too much in favour of plant life. I would make a similar criticism of the smaller tropical free-flight area in the Asian Pavillion.
One side of the ‘AmeriCasa’ is occupied by a recent construction for the Kodiak Bears rescued from the notorious Limburgse Zoo in Belgium and surely transplanted to bear paradise. Lots of greenery, rocky outcrops, tree trunks and a very large water moat in which the Kodiaks spend a good deal of time cavorting. This is a quite superb exhibit and one of the finest I have ever seen for bears. Typical of Emmen is that an adjacent cabin is given over to a plethora of bear facts and information. If a whole exhibition can be made from information on the animals then often this zoo will do it. The best comparison to this in the UK would be Colchester I would say. Adjacent to the Kodiak Bears is a truly enormous pool for Patagonian Sealions.
Obviously there are a number of smaller exhibits I have not touched upon including the famous rat sewer. Out of all these miscellaneous exhibits I particularly enjoyed the variety of European shore birds in the Tidal Aviary. Avocets, Redshank, Golden Plover, Lapwing and Oyster Catcher and others including what may well be the rarest zoo animal in the whole place the Common Tern. Just think about it, how often do you see Terns other than the gorgeous grey and whiskered Inca species in zoos? No. Emmen is not known for its unusual and rare species. It is not what we would term a ‘collectors’ zoo (and there is a term to frighten the management in most zoos these days).
Emmen is unique mainly for the mantle it has taken upon itself and way it runs a little at odds with current zoo thinking. There are no Lions, Great Apes, Canids, Deer and numerous other groups (nor room for them I might add) so personally I would shrink from placing it amongst the worlds very best. If I might be candid, even in its own homeland I would prefer Blijdorp or Artis, but if your criteria concerns doing things well or not at all then you might well rate Emmen amongst the most perfect zoos in the world.