Having read much about this zoo, both anti-zoo biased and realistic, recently in the zoo press, I thought I would see for myself, as a neutral observer, what state the collection is really in.
Famously, the Giardino Zoologico Di Roma is one of the several zoos partially designed by Carl Hagenbeck . At one time the gardens contained a considerable diversity of species but the recent changes in the staffing at management level and the subsequent alterations thus brought about dictated that over 1/3 of the species held have been re-homed in other collections or otherwise disposed of.
So what does the animal collection consist of? Well, as one might expect, the commoner species (those which are becoming increasingly rare in captivity, certainly in Britain) predominate. Of course there are many of the ‘charismatic mega-fauna’ here, or ‘ABC zoo animals’ if you prefer, as this collections aims were, until the recent changes, scientifically and recreationally driven, rather than conservation being the zoos primary function. I would not be surprised if the zoos mission statement has been reviewed with the recent overhaul.
From the main entrance gate, one is faced with the elephant house, a huge crumbling structure. Until relatively recently there were both species of Elephants, both of Hippopotamus and both Indian and Black Rhinoceros in here. Now, the public are no longer allowed inside, huge cracks criss-cross the exterior of the building and there are even patches of brickwork showing through where the concrete work has fallen away. Animal-wise, there is a single African Elephant, three Asians and a pair of Common Hippopotamuses. In all fairness, I believe the house would have been quite cramped in the past. The paddocks once used for the Rhinos and Hippos are decidedly narrow and are now interconnected for the use of the Hippos. The Elephants yards are concrete, moated and are not over-large.
In common with a surprising number of other zoos, a road bisects Rome zoo. Visitors have to pass through a tunnel to reach a smaller area of the gardens that appear to have been added to the original site (where the bulk of the collection is housed). Remaining in the main portion of the grounds, there are several animal houses open for inspection by visitors. There is an ape house, which contains Orangs, Gorillas and Chimpanzees. The cages are thickly barred and, especially in the case of the Chimpanzees (which were barely discernable), rather dark and gloomy. Despite these seemingly primitive conditions, the animals do breed; even the Gorillas have bred in the past. There are several houses for ungulates, mostly following the original design of a small central house with a series of wedge-shaped paddocks radiating out from it. At one time, evidently, there was a considerable number of species held but at present there are a few individuals of Eland, Sitatunga and Nilgai. The Cattle House, which follows the latter design also, contains both species of Bison, Banteng and, most interestingly, a couple of hybrids between the two species of Bison. In the near vicinity there are rows of small paddocks lining the border of this part of zoo, many of which have been interconnected housing a few species of deer such as Red and Axis.
Nearby there is what was once a Polar-themed area, which included Seals, Sea lions, Penguins and Polar Bears. These enclosures were designed by Hagenbeck, although no attempt was made to create the illusion that there no barriers between predator and prey species. The clearly separate enclosures now stand empty and derelict with peeling paint and a covering of leaves and litter. The only occupied enclosure here is that formerly occupied by the Polar Bears, which are no longer here. Instead, there is a nice group of five or so Brown Bears which had be relocated here whilst there old enclosure (Also Hagenbeckian but in another part of the zoo) whilst a new one is being built on the same site.
Continuing with the Hagenbeckian architecture, there is a row of his characteristic enclosures, which house the Lions (African), Tigers (Bengal) and Bears (Syrian Brown and Asiatic Black). The rest of the big-cat collection is housed in a series of glass-fronted, high-roofed cages. It was nice to be able to compare, side by side, Jaguar, with their melanistic form, and Leopard, with theirs.
Dotted around in this part of the zoo there are several other smaller exhibits. There are a couple of old-style monkey houses with mainly old-world species such as Mandrill, Japanese Macaque, Rhesus Monkey, Hamadryas Baboon, White-Collared Mangabey and Black lemur. The only Platyrrhines noted were some White-fronted Capuchins and Black Spider Monkeys.
There is a large portion of the zoo cordoned off whilst redevelopment takes place. Undergoing changes in this area are the old Hagenbeckian bear enclosures and some artificial precipices for various wild goats and sheep. From without the red tape there appeared to be only a nice heard of Mouflon remaining here.
In the second smaller portion of the grounds, there is an unusual layout of enclosures unfortunately largely empty. Central to it all is the best part of the whole zoo – the reptile house. Although of simple layout and design, each of the small glass fronted vivaria seemed spotlessly clean and immaculately furnished. The glass fronts were so clear that in many cases there appeared to be none at all. This cleanliness is, no doubt, maintained by the presence of a stand-off barrier a couple of feet back from the exhibits themselves. This seems to dissuade visitors from smearing the glass with grubby fingers. The inmates here, which were all perfectly visible, included several rarely seen species like Asp, Rough-scaled Sand Boa and European Boa. In the centre of the reptile house is a circular pit, divided up, for various crocodilians including a very large specimen of American Crocodile.
The reptile house is surrounded completely or, in cases, partially by cages, which form concentric rings. Originally these were all aviaries with a couple of paddocks for Cheetah and Maned Wolf. Now these enclosures are largely empty, overgrown, and taped off. There were one or two Ibises and Owls in those which are still in use and even some tortoises in another.
There are some more gravely paddocks lining the border of the zoo here. The larger ones had some Grevy’s Zebra and some Kulan whilst some smaller, shadier, ones had Emu, Double-wattled Cassowary and some Kori Bustards.
Away from the public nearby is a series of cages containing Brown Capuchins – apparently held for research. There were several scientist-looking personnel observing them and making notes. Apart from some listed parrot aviaries here, the only other exhibit worthy of mention is another of the best parks of this zoo. This is a very large domed aviary for, in the main, large European birds. There is White Stork, Demoiselle Crane, European White Pelican and Masked Plover. This is an excellent exhibit with a perfect balance between the amount of vegetation required by the birds (for perching, nesting and cover etc.) and the amount that might hinder the public’s view of the exhibits. The aviary was furnished with a shallow pond surrounded by aquatic plants and shrubbery. Indeed the cage is so large that the White Storks were able to fly around unhindered.
Over all, there was a curious mixture of good and bad exhibits. There were a remarkable number of empty cages, sometimes whole rows. Generally the enclosures were just average – some appeared ‘medieval’ but were really not that bad whilst others were superficially very good but were in actual fact, very small in area and sterile (some of the old Hagenbeckian enclosures for instance) There is currently a great deal of work going on and in several places there were signs to mark the sites and inform visitors of future developments such as new enclosures for the Gorillas and the Pygmy Hippos. It seems that Mr. Richardson has taken on his new post, and its enormous responsibility for the ‘reinvention’ of this zoo, in both hands. Whilst it is unfortunate to have had to reduce the size of the huge collection so substantially, it was obviously necessary so to bring the zoo into line with modern zoo practice and the trends, both policy and design, followed throughout the rest of the developed world.
Review by Angelo May 2006
I visited Rome zoo in Jan 2006. First up are the macaws. These beautiful birds in a small? cage near the entrance were all found being smuggled in suitcases etc. So they were donated to the zoo. One assumes they can not be repatriated to their home country. It is sad to see they did not have a natural environment in their cage. Most enclosures are pretty awful compared to zoos like Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. I really don't know why Rome bothers with a zoo as they are out of touch with modern zoo philosophy. I think Milan closed down its zoo. Rome zoo has little space for its animals. I think they would do better with fewer animals and bigger habitats.
Incidentally the wonderful oxen that were used by farmers in Italy seem to have dwindled, from hundreds down to 3 or 4 pairs in one province.
It would be nice if they had a reserve to produce a herd. Any one got any ideas?
Rome zoo does not respond either when you contact them with suggestions. Disappointing. Angelo