Monday, 8 June 2009

Big Cats at Berlin Zoo

I wonder how many non-German speaker visitors to the Big Cat house at Berlin Zoo understand the implications of this sign beside the Lion cage? It translates as 'Watch Out! Lion sprays urine through the bars.', and yes, it really does, we've seen it! If we could only catch it on video that would be a great post to YouTube!
You wouldn't think it of the old chap, would you? When he roars though, the whole zoo knows who is König.
The Big Cat house is one of my favorite places at Berlin Zoo, but it is an area electrically tensioned with primeaval power, anger, awe, fear, contradiction, hope, and sadness. Of course, these magnificant animals should not be here, they should be wild in their natural environment. But their Heimat is being rapidly destroyed by the expansion of humans and they are being driven to the limits of extinction.
But the people who are pushing them out are the poorest on the planet and surely need to exist too, and don't want to meet a ten-foot long predator with razor-sharp teeth and claws as they go about scraping a living. Berlin Zoo have a breeding program to at least try and preserve threatened species, but for an existence confined to caged enclosures? Is that fair to their million-year long evolutionary-honed instincts?
However, on a personal human level you are there metres away from a beast that could rip you to pieces, and that frisson of excitement is heart-beatingly glorious. And there is also the sheer, astounding beauty of these creatures; their silky coats and colours, their graceful muscle-rippling movements, their intelligent predator's eyes summing you up.
I love and respect these creatures; I am saddened that they are caged up; but I am thankful that I can be privileged to share their space and look into their eyes one-to-one.
Of the big cats, my favorite are the tigers (even if their cage does make them look like they are on a graph-sheet), and at least they don't piss on you through the bars!


  1. Many years ago, my wife and I spent a cold, rainy day at the zoo. Of course we admired - and respected - the big cats, but there was a very small South American cat the name of which I heve fotgotten. I think it was the smallest of all cats. Can you tell me the name? Perhaps you can direct me to a photo?

  2. Hi Geoffrey,
    The smallest wild cats at Berlin Zoo are a pair of really cute sand cats (Felis margarita). See

    They also have some Rostkatzen (Prionailurus rubiginosus) that aren't much bigger. In English they are called 'rusty-spotted cats'. This is a photo of one of the Rostkatze at Berlin Zoo
    Neither species of cats come from South America though; sand cats are Arabian, Rostktzen come from India.

  3. Geoffrey, I think you may mean the Jaguarundi, they are from South America.

  4. Shocked to see any zoo anywhere still has big cats in outdated cages like this. Absolutely unbelievable. London Zoo got rid of this kind of thing years ago. This is supposed to be a world-class zoo?

  5. @anonymous: I don't like to see big cats in cages either. However, the photos I show here are of the indoors part of their domain. This is where they come to be fed, or for warmth on chilly Berlin Winter's day. It is also the best place to get really close up to them to take photographs.

    Be assured that the big cats do have a much larger outside area for them to roam around in if they want. No, it is not exactly the Serengeti or the jungles of South East Asia but a real attempt has been made to simulate a natural environment.

    And yes, Berlin Zoo IS a world-class zoo. Please visit it first before jumping to conclusions. I would also recommend visitors to go to the Tierpark Berlin in Friedrichsfelde as well, which was East Germany's counterpart to West Berlin's zoo. The big cats (and all the animals) have even more, naturalistic, space to roam around in.


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