Antwerp Zoo

On a recent visit to Antwerp, we managed to drain our glasses, rise from the comfort of a café and go to the zoo.  I always like to visit a zoo on a city-break.  An art gallery or two, a cathedral or castle, a museum, a botanical garden and a zoo.  It is what I do.  The entrance fee was pricey at €22 each but the entry staff eventually managed to prise the cash from my clenched, whitened fist.  The place was teeming with keepers, caring for the healthy and (mostly) content-looking animals, so I didn’t really resent the cost.  Besides we were there for 4 ½ hours!

Here’s a little of what we saw:

A Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), mesmerised by the wind blowing in the trees (and a dead mouse in its talons).  In the wild its distribution is circumpolar – a fact which I’m sharing with you just so that I can use that word.  Circumpolar, circumpolar, circumpolar.

Nearby a Great Grey Owl (Strix nebulosa), looked me in the eye, weighed my intellect … and found it wanting.  Captive GGOs can live to the good-ish age of forty – but much less in the wild.  And I might add that their distribution is also circumpolar.  Circumpolar, circumpolar, circumpolar.

Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) feed on small organisms filtered through their bills; it is shrimp-like crustacea that cause such a preposterous, outrageous pink.  Zoos add a colour-enhancing supplement to their food.

The lions (Panthera leo) were dozing in the sun.  No real surprise that it is the  …

… females who do most of the hunting.  Up until the 1940’s there were still lions in the Atlas mountains of Morocco.  Now, except for a small, isolated pocket of the Asiatic sub-species in India, all wild lions live in sub-Saharan Africa.

This tiger (Panthera tigris) shows that, unlike other species of cat, it is perfectly happy in water.  Tigers are, of course, an endangered species and are now extinct in: Afghanistan; Iran; Kazakhstan; Kyrgyzstan; Pakistan; Singapore; Tajikistan; Turkey; Turkmenistan; Uzbekistan and probably, North Korea.  They have lost 93% of their historic range.

The Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) is critically endangered.  The total wild population is between 30 – 40.

Like fingerprints, the stripes on no two zebras are exactly the same

The Plains Zebra (Equus burchelli – the most numerous of the three species) are prey to both lions and hyenas; a lousy place to sit in the food chain.

Elephas maximus indicus

At a zoo you can smell the animals and, I have to say, I do like the smell of an elephant.  I’m the first to admit that it isn’t ideal to keep such a huge, majesty in a confined concrete enclosure.  But if children can get up close and personal to an asian elephant, is it a price worth paying to keep some in captivity?  (Elephants in captivity, that is – not children.  Although … thinking about it ….. ?).  Anyway.  The kids (of which there were dayglo-droves, as far as the eye could see) will hopefully form a lifelong affection for elephants.  As a four-year old at Berlin zoo, I certainly did.

Interesting elephant fact?  They are the only mammal that can’t jump!  Another one?  Having no thumbs, baby elephants suck their trunks.

Giraffa camelopardalis

Like zebras, no two giraffe’s coats are the same.  Interesting giraffe fact?  They have the longest tail of any land mammal – up to 8ft.

The hippo (Hippopotamus amphibius) has an unsavoury habit – which we observed with grimaced distaste.  While defecating, it rapidly flaps its paddle-like tail to spread its excrement over a wider area.  I didn’t bother taking a photo.

Hippos are very aggressive – especially when they have young.  Do NOT place yourself between a mother hippo and her baby.  Actually, it doesn’t much matter; hippos will  attack humans without any provocation.

They are commonly considered the most dangerous animal in Africa.

Far less dangerous, and previously unknown to me, were these South American Coati (Nasua nasua).  These two were particularly absorbed by a restaurant review in my copy of The Guardian.

I was equally fond of these Javan Langurs (Trachypithecus auratus).  The orange coloured one is a naturally occurring form.  The main threat to this species is habitat loss; the burning and clearance of forest for timber and agriculture.

Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) are always fascinating to watch.

As we share 98.8% of our DNA, there is much to recognize.  Interesting chimpanzee info?  I overheard what they were whispering about; but it was kind of private.

Western Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) are also close relations of ours.  They share just under 98% of our genes.  That missing 2% must include the swimming gene.  They can’t.

How can anyone believe that we are not related?  He looks far more human than many humans I’ve met … or dated.

The word Meerkat comes from the Afrikaans meaning marsh cat.  Meerkats (Suricata suricatta) don’t live in or near marshes and they aren’t cats.  Badly named as they are, they are NOT endangered.  Yay!

Through thick plate-glass (too dark for photos), we watched underwater Grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) cavorting at great speed and agility; wreathed in curtains of silver bubbles and obviously playing.  Just playing.  A boy, his face lit up, turned and looked up at Jim with a huge grin and said, “Wow.”  (Flemish for “wow”).

If zoos can excite and engage young children and instill in them a love for and appreciation of the wild wonder of the world then perhaps, just maybe, the next generation will make a better job of preserving it than we have.  I have to hope so – as there seems little chance otherwise of saving that which is endangered.  Certainly the obfuscating talks at the 2012 Earth Summit in Rio, seemed more concerned with preserving the profits of corporations and maintaining unfettered, infinite economic growth, than with preserving the habitats of the Javan Langur or the Amur Leopard.


While we would all want zoo animals released ‘out there‘ into the wild (and not in glass and metal cages), in so many instances ‘out there‘ is where they become bush-meat; or trinkets; or rugs and wall-hangings; or spurious drugs; or trophies to idiocy.  Until that is no longer the case, zoos must continue their breeding programmes and maintain gene pools and teach the young (and the old) how very precious and irreplaceable our co-habitants of this planet are.

16 thoughts on “Antwerp Zoo

  1. Hi David, looks like you had a field day at the zoo with your camera, gorgeous photography as always! The photos of the gorillas are especially superb, the facial expressions on some of them are fantastic (well captured).

    Which reminds me, if you haven’t been yet one city well worth visiting is Vienna, and their zoo at ‘Schoenbrunn’ is a must. You’d love it there 🙂


  2. Great post, David. I love zoos (good ones) although that seems to be a statement that can lead to problems for some. In an ideal world no animals would be in captivity but since humans seem keen to make this planet not such an ideal place the work zoos do is incredibly important. I once visited a ‘zoo’ in the loosest sense of the word that was on a small island once owned by Tito the Yugoslavian leader. Animals he was given as presents were put there. I was only 7 at the time but I can still clearly see the distressing sight of a bear pacing up and down in little more than a pit. The tour guides with us didn’t seem to see any problem with the scene before us.

    Some fascinating facts – I love the idea of the elephants sucking their trunks and meerkats are one of my favourites, predictable, I know.


    • Hi WW, I know exactly what you mean (see my comment re Istanbul zoo below). Hopefully those medieval type menageries are a thing of the past. Hopefully. I was very aware when writing this post that many people dislike zoos – hence my (heavy handed) attempts to justify them. But sadly, I do believe they are necessary – at least for the foreseeable future. Dave


    • I know what you mean about them being sad places, Elaine. But I have been to some great zoos. Leipzig in particular was brilliant; large enclosures and heavy, clever planting meant you would suddenly, through a gap in bamboo, come across rhino for example (fenced off rhino I should add!). D


  3. beautiful photos……but zoo must maintain enough space and proper flooring and companions to deal with an elephants need to walk distances and their emotional need for companionship.most zoos confine their elephants to a small concrete jail….too cold to go out no large spaces…..all alone…it is a sad life in many cases…..if you want to see how to care for elephants the right way visit


    • Hi Sharon, I totally agree but, for a city zoo, the elephant enclosure was pretty big and cleverly designed to keep the elephants occupied (or at least somewhat occupied). They weren’t alone either – there were half a dozen or so. The elephant sanctuary link you kindly sent me looks excellent though I think city zoos are more likely to engage with a much larger number of visitors. There were literally hundreds of school children there on our visit. And the educational presentations were terrific. Incidentally, I visited an elephant sanctuary in Sri Lanka a few years ago. All the guide books etc raved about it but we saw an elephant chained to a post, with no shade (we were even told it was being punished!!) and it just made us angry. It seemed to us to be little more than a money making enterprise. Hopefully it has changed in the intervening years. Thanks very much for commenting. Dave


  4. Wonderful photos, Dave. The seal’s pleasure in that water is really contagious, and I’d almost like to curl up for a nap with a langur — they seem to get the point so well. Zoos have come such a long way over the years. I remember going to the Denver Zoo as a kid and hating seeing distressed animals in baking hot, tiny cages pacing and pacing and pacing. Now I think most zoos do a reasonably thoughtful job of giving the animals some sort of homelike environment and outlet for natural activities. That helps kids fall in love with them, too — a tiger ripping a food-and-feather toy to shreds, or an elephant solving a problem using “ladders” to get to a food “tree” gives you a much better idea of the vital, conscious beings inside the bodies. At the ABQ Zoo the mountain lions have a (caged) tree trunk stretched horizontally over the walking path. The first time I walked under the trunk to see the m.l. lurking right overhead, tail lashing, eyes following my every move, taught me more about them in that split second gasp than any nature show I’ve ever seen. No “enrichment activity” could ever take the place for an animal of being in the wild, but like you, I hope zoos serve their purpose so that more animals can survive and thrive the way they’re meant to.


    • Hi Stacy, I visited the zoo below the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul in 1983 and I can promise you that was a terrible Zoo. I can still picture a tiny bear cub clinging halfway up some bars at the front of its tiny enclosure (room, really) and mewling. Horrible.
      Your Mountain Lion story reminds me of watching a Black Jaguar (sadly) pacing at Berlin Zoo a couple of years ago. A chap and his very young daughter walked up to look and the Jaguar suddenly stopped pacing. It stood stock still, slightly waved its tail and stared at the little girl. “Lunch.” You could almost see a neon light in its head flashing on and off. “Lunch.” The father and daughter chatted and pointed and laughed, unaware that a little wire was all that prevented the panther leaping. Pretty chilling.



  5. Dave, there’s so much more in the world than human beings think they own, with so much merit and beauty. These creatures here, in Antwerp, deserve good, free lives, like we all do. I too hope zoos won’t be necessary one day, because one day we’ll be the stewards of the planet we are meant to be.


Any thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.