• Tuesday, May 17, 2022

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  • The history of Artis ZOO

    If one could time-travel back 175 years to the year 1838 in Amsterdam, it would be a real eye-opener, to say the least. Three gentlemen lovers of nature, Gerard Westerman, J.W.H. Werlemann and J.J. Wijsmuller, had come together at that time to make themselves a zoo right in the middle for the canal city.

    They were in fact continuing a tradition of keeping manageries of wild animals that dates back thousands of years. Wall carvings in Egypt and Mesopotamia show that menageries of wild animals were kept as early as 2500 BC. Ancient explorations to distant places in the world brought back exotic animals such as bears, elephants, giraffes, dolphins and birds and animal handlers were then employed to look after the prized wildlife. The public zoo, short for zoological park, became popular in the 18th century in the Age of Enlightenment. In this period of European history, reason, logic and science, including zoology, were the new ideals of society and government.

    Nature and animals started to be studied in a scientific way that involved researching animal behaviour and anatomy. To make it convenient for researchers and the new popular interest in animals, zookeepers kept animals in places that resembled the animals’ natural habitats in human cities.

    The history of Artis ZOO

    Paris had the first modern zoo, opened in 1793, as a direct result of the French Revolution. The leaders of that momentous revolution guillotined the heads of aristocrats and royalty but transferred their private menageries animals and plants to the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes for the enjoyment and education of the whole populace. The zoo is still popular and busy in downtown Paris.


    Walking through the gates of the zoo in Amsterdam today, as many people do, you see Natura Artis Magistra (Latin for “nature is the teacher of art”) written above the entrance. As only the middle gate is usually open, with the word Artis written on top, the zoo became known as Artis Zoo. The Amsterdam zoo was at first open only to members of the Zoological Society but from 1851 it was accessible to the general public and from 1920 it was opened all year-round.

    The location of Artis Zoo was the “Middenhof” estate was bought by the Zoological Society late in 1938 in the Plantage, then in the rural countryside on the outskirts of a smaller Amsterdam. The zoo showed both live and mounted specimens. The zoological museum was constructed in 1855 and the library in 1867.The aquarium was built in 1882 and the wolf house, formerly an inn, and the Masman Garden House, now the home of scarlet ibis, were existing buildings on the site. The zoo now also has a planetarium and a geological museum. The vision of the three naturalists back in the 19th century has become an oasis of nature of 14 hectares in which live 900 diverse species of animals and 200 species of trees, many of both kinds are on the verge of extinction.


    Camels greet visitors just at the main entrance and daily tours introduce visitors to animals that they would otherwise see only in photos. There are special enclosures for reptiles, fish, insects and butterflies. Births of baby animals are happily announced with fanfare. The Artis Zoo attracts over 1.2 million visitors each year, second only in popularity to the Van Gogh Museum. Artis Zoo has a comprehensive and valuable library specialising in the history of zoology and botany. The zoo library also houses the good collections of the Zoological Museum and the Amsterdam Botanical Garden.

    In the collection are also archives of zoologists and botanists, such as Hugo de Vries who had amassed 20,000 books, 3,000 manuscripts and 80,000 beautiful animal prints. The zoo library is considered one of the special collections of Amsterdam University Library. The University also has the Artis professorship, entitled the Special Chair for Culture, Landscape and Nature, that is currently occupied by Professor E. A. de Jong.

    Artis’ founders would be well satisfied is that diverse natural living environments have been successfully recreated for the zoo animals. People can experience an African savanna with gazelles, wildebeest and zebras, then be surrounded by sharks and coral reefs and see what animals live in the waters of the canals of Amsterdam. Artis Zoo celebrates its 175th jubilee this year with hundreds of thousands of new flowers and bulbs being planted all around the entire park. First crocuses, grape hyacinths and glory-of-the-snows will cover the ground in January and February and in November and December trees will blaze with autumnal colours in celebration.

    Image: artis.nl

    Combine a trip to the Artis Zoo with a wonderful canal cruise. Book your tickets here and save €3!


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