For most of us, a visit of a Zoological garden is related to a day spent with kids. Animals, attractions, affection section, fun train or funicular, food and usually tired crying kids at the end of the afternoon. In this context, Prague Zoo is no exception, offering a vast selection of everything – from almost uncountable animal species in many colourful pavilons and outdoor sections to a vista cable car and tens of little and larger snackbars and restaurants, ice cream and pancake stands, trophy shops.
The reasons for your visit
But there is also another context. The Prague ZOO has many environmental, historical and architectural connotations, for which it is worth of your visit even if you came to Prague without children. It is rather astonishing, how closely can a history and presence of a ZOO be associated with the past and current life of the country and the world. How does this small artificial animal world reflect our human universality in all its aspects. This article is being written in the times of the Covid pandemic – and the Zoological garden is closed just as everthing else, the animals are secluded in their dwellings and some must be treated – under a large and highly emotional surveillance of the public – for the infection – just as we, human beings.
Further to the above, in the last decades, Prague Zoological garden developed into a modern educational and scientific facility of the highest standards and rank: its help in the rescue of some endangered species is unique and admired in many corners of the world.
A short look into the history of breeding exotic animals
Menageries, collections of exotic animals, were a domaine of rich individuals, particularly aristocrats. Which applies also for the Czech countries – the Deer moat edging the Prague Castle complex witnessed probably many lions – a lion being the symbol of the Kingdom of Bohemia since the early Middle Ages, there must have always been a couple of real animals at the Castle. Leopards, panthers, bears, there are records found on many different wild animals kept at the king´s court. Even the first president of the then Czechoslovak Republic, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, bred 2 Siberian bears there – a gift from the Czech soldiers who fought against the bolsheviks in Russia during and after WWI.
I dream of a garden full of exotic animals
Although there were several noblemen behind the very first idea of the ZOO garden in the Czech countries, the idea was realised by an ardent secondary school teacher named Jiří Janda (1865-1938). His all-life efforts accompanied with many obstacles and adversities – there were long discussions about the location, vocation and function of the future Zoo business – were crowned with success, and the garden was opened to public in 1931, subsidized by the City of Prague. His management did not have a long history – he died before WWII, the war which brought tough times for the life of the garden.
A garden or a circus?
The financial and other sources were rather restricted during the WWII and in the vital urge of the war years, the employees of the garden started to grow their own vegetables and cereals, and to perform in a – initially improvised – circus. The first performance was organised in April 1939. In 1942, there were 258 shows, and only thanks to their very own crop and the money earned in the shows, the animals survived the war. Moreover, they were able to look after other animals evacuated from the bombed German ZOO gardens – there is a legendary tale of a female hippopotamus called Susan, who lived through the bombing of the Berlin ZOO as well as a demanding journey across the war affected Germany to live in Prague Zoo for many more years. About 75 other animals followed her story – especially the survivors from the Dresden‘s ZOO garden. Scienists, zoologists and other experts that gathered around the garden during the war laid the groundwork for the modern Zoological garden we know today, including its environmental and species conservation programmes. At the end of the war, there were more then 1000 animals in the garden.
The second half of the 20th century – the Chinese Connection
Soon after the war and the communist putsch in 1948, the Prague ZOO started a close relationship with the ZOO in Peking. Prague Zoological garden has received many exotic animals from the Chinese partners, animals that were really exotic for the Central European milieu – a Manchurian leopard, several red pandas, a Siberian tiger, or two Royal Cobras – the biggest poisonous snakes in the world. From the official standpoint, they all were (of course) gifts from Mao Tse Tung…
Around the turn of the millenium and further
After the Velvet revolution in 1989, the Prague Zoological garden started its new and fast journey towards a modern conservation and educational facility. From building of numerous new, large and architecturally remarkable animal pavilions and settings, over an active and successful engagement in the help of endangered species, it has become a first grade institution which is periodically awarded in both professional and public competitions of all kinds. It belongs already long into the TOP TEN of the ZOOs in the world, and has even reached number 4 in 2017.
The best known conservation program that are run here are both in-situ – on spot – let´s mention the succesful breeding and monitoring of vultures and owls, or ex-situ conservation – the rescue and return of the Przewalski´s horses to Mongolia, or Gorilla Conservation in Africa.
A darling of the audience
The Prague ZOO is a rather popular institution in all senses of the term: it has the highest numbers of visitors among all the other Czech institutions and sights –about 1,5 million visitors come here each year. Being located along the Vltava river, it has overcome the large flood in 2002, and reconstructed with a significant help of various public collections. The floods were a real disaster for the garden -more then 100 animals died, others have to be rescued kilometres down the stream, and many animals had to be moved temporarily to other places to survive…
Some animals are so popular, that there are cameras inside their dwellings livestreaming the activities of the animals – e.g. elephants or gorillas. People watch them closely, know their names and live through their day and night…
Prague Zoo is located along the Vltava river just behind the baroque palace of Troja, in a mild natural river valley surrounded by trees, rocks and other natural elements. It is recommended to use the public bus connection to avoid traffic jams, as on sunny days, the arrival route is usually full. The buses stop just in front of the main entrance gate. For the way back, you can use the pedestrian bridge over the river to get to Holešovice and to the city centre.
If you still hesitate whether to visit the Zoo in Prague, we hope to have persuaded you. Spend a day in the place filled with many wonderful beings that were gathered together here! An experience you will not regret…
The author of the article and the manager of the hotel in one has many years experience with writing texts, she has been working as a free-lance journalist contributing to different Czech daily newspapers and other periodics of all kinds. She has spent a part of her career working as a city guide, and her articles are therefore providing a highly informed insight of a person, who was not only born in Prague, but who has crisscrossed the city streets countless times, has read hundreds pages of literature about Prague, and who constantly strives to contribute to the good reputation of the city from her todays workplace. Hopefully with a success…