Blijdorp Zoo is one of Europe’s best zoos. It’s large, ensuring that its many species of animals have plenty of space, and it’s modern – which means the animals are kept in a way that ensures their comfort and respects their privacy while giving visitors the best experience possible.
For us, there is always a few standard “big hits” in every zoo. The big cats, wolves, red pandas and apes (although we often feel conflicted watching them). The big cats are always interesting to watch, especially during feeding time, when they seem to be most active.
When I was younger I used to wonder if these majestic creatures, evolved to range over large territories and to hunt tricky prey, are bored in their enclosures. Perhaphs, but I suppose like humans, they probably don’t mind the availibility of food at regular, predictable times. In the past, they used to be kept in boring cages, which was terrible and very stressful for them. These days, their habitats are well taught of and incorporate many elements of their natural environment.
This is both great for the cats and for visitors, as we also get to have a clearer sense of how these creatures are, back out in the wild.
Among the big cats in Blijdorp are the leopard (distinguished from the jaguar by the absence of spots in the center of its rosettes), the tiger and the lion. The leopard and the tiger are solitary animals and we didn’t see many of them. Probably, like most zoos in Europe that take part in breeding programmes, there was more than one cat in each of their respective enclosures. If so, they were well hidden!
Blijdorp Zoo does have a large family of lions though! Their lions are Asian lions, which are more social than African lions. They are also smaller with thinner manes. I suppose the relative scarcity of food, or perhaps the more competitive enviroment in the regions of Asia these lions are from, result in their smaller size and more cooperative nature.
One of my favrouite animals, without a doubt is the red panda. I guess there’s nothing special about this. The red panda is probably the most adorable creature to have evolved. I love its beautiful, fluffy red coat, its white muzzle (especially when it sticks its tongue out) and its calm, relaxed behaviour.
The red panda in Blijdorp was not too shy and despite it having quite a lot of foliage to hide in, preferred to stay out where it was easily seen – this is quite unusual for red pandas who like to stay hidden.
The red panda is one of the most solitary creatures in the world, with each panda having large home ranges that don’t overlap by much.
The best time to come view red pandas is in the spring or autumn I think, since that’s when they aren’t too cold or hot. Being either does tend to make the red panda rather lethargic. If it’s too cold, they will prefer to stay curled into a ball, their long, fluffy tail like a scarf around their bodies. Or, if it’s too hot, they splay over a branch under thick foliage, so they are out of the sun and their bodies exposed maximally to the cool, shaded environment.
When we visited though, it was a nice, sunny but cool day, and the red panda we saw was being quite curious – climbing up and down the trees in her enclosure and investigating the fish in her moat.
Speaking of thermal regulation – the polar bears were, I though, having a blast cooling off from the sun by diving in and out of their pool. There were two of them, one of which was flufflier and whiter than the other. He was also a lot more playful.
His idea of fun was to attack a blue plastic bucket repeatedly – probably the bucket used to deliver his lunchtime ration of fish. When we arrived, a crowd had already gathered to watch his antics.
Upon reading the sign posted beside the glass viewing area, we realise that this polar bear was just slightly over a year old, which explained his silly, excitable behaviour.
He was great fun to watch. I’m not sure he was aware of the attention he was attracting, but ocassionally, he would swim really close to the glass where children had their face pressed against, and place his paw on it. It was quite eye opening to see that paw up close and how large and powerful it was!
Wolves & Foxes
Wolves are probably the animal with the most myths and legends associated with them. This is not surprising. After all, man’s best friend, the dog, evolved from the same ancestor as the wolf. Man and wolf most certainly have a shared history that goes back tens of thousands of years.
Like humans, wolves are social creatures. This made it possible for the their ancestors, and ours to co-evolve. This shared pre-history is recorded in our myths and legends, and that’s the reason why wolves still play a big role in contemporary culture today. The Direwolves from Game of Thrones are probably the most recent example that comes to mind.
Besides that of course, there’s something simply majestic and powerful about these beautiful creatures that make their appeal so strong for us.
Although also decended from a similar ancestor, foxes have less of a positive role in our societies. While wolves are often though of as brave, majestic and loyal, foxes are often portrayed as sly and slippery creatures. In part, this is because foxes have plagued mankind ever since we bagan domesticaing animals. But since I’m not a farmer, I don’t have any negative associations with foxes. For me, they could almost be another type of cute dog.
Reptiles & Birds
Rotterdam Zoo also has an extensive reptile house with reptiles from all over the world. To be honest, I don’t find reptiles that fascinating to watch, probably because they aren’t as active as mammals. But this is really unfair, since reptiles also have really interesting evolutionary histories and some truly fascinating behaviours.
For example, did you know that the gila monsters, native to the USA, are monogamous and mate for life, exhibiting signs of distress when their partner dies?
Or, that the crocodile is capable of going for over a year without food. Simply by sitting still in the water, like a dead log, they can conserve energy for many months, not having to feed during this time.
Reptiles are one of the oldest branches on the tree of life, from which mammals, dinosaurs and birds evolved. There are also two distinct groups of modern reptiles, with lizards and snakes in one and crocodiles in the other. Interestingly, crocodiles are on the same branch as the dinosaurs.
In recent times, its been discovered that dinosaurs, such as the famous velociraptor from Jurassic Park, were feathered. We now know that modern birds are actually living dinosaurs. Of course, not all dinosaurs were feathered.
Looking at some of the large birds in Rotterdam zoo, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine them a little bigger and a little more ferocious – and a little more like a dinosaur from the past.
Apes & Monkeys
Personally, I always feel conflicted when viewing exhibits with monkeys or apes in them. If the monkeys are small enough, like squirrel monkeys or vervet monkeys, I don’t feel too bad about it, if they are given ample space and an enclosure with lots of interesting stimulus.
With the apes though, it’s always difficult – I find that they are far too much like humans for me to feel comfortable watching them in captivity.
The monkeys and apes in Blijdorp Zoo do have ample space and interesting enclosures, and you can observe them behaving quite naturally in their environments. Sometimes it’s almost a little disconcerting to observe just how similar they are to us in behaviour.
The gorillas and chimps I feel are the ones that come closest to how humans are. I often feel myself wondering what’s going on in their heads as they gaze out into the distance over the visitors looking at them on the other side of the glass.
Also, finally, not to be missed are several smallish enclosures containing various cute, fluffy mammals. Not to be missed are the prairie dogs. Blijdorp’s prairie dogs are a real hit with adults and children alike. Their enclosure isn’t really an enclosure, and the animals are allowed to roam freely, even onto the pathway.
They seldom do this, however, and tend to prefer to stay really close to their dens. For an up close and personal experience, you can crawl into a tunnel dug under their mound of sand and stick your head up in the middle of their plot of land.
There’s also a racoon exhibit. These creatures are truly amusing to watch, and we had a lot of fun observing them try to perform various tasks while we were there. One of them involved the entire troop getting from the lower end of the enclosure to the upper end, which was separated by some obstacles. It was fun to watch how they helped each other as they went about this task.
Overall, Rotterdam Zoo is a really nice and large zoo that is constantly getting better with regular updates to their enclosures. Another plus is that they are part of a larger EU breeding program for many endangered species – we’ve sadly never seen any new borns while we were there, but a quick look at their webpage tells us they have them quite regularly! We would highly recommend visiting the zoo if you’re in the Netherlands.
Here are all the photographs we took at Blijdorp: