Lion Dembe (6 years old) and lioness Kianga (12) walk thoughtfully to the barred outside door. Side by side they smell the known and unknown scents of their world beyond; the new country retreat in Artis. The three lions – there is another lioness, Kacela (11) – are now getting used to their indoor enclosure, the door will soon open and they can go outside for the first time. With their cautious sniffing, the lions look exactly like a cat emerging from its carrier to explore its new home.
The ‘cat video’ is on the phone of Tjerk ter Meulen, animal & plant manager at Artis, and is the only thing we see of the lions for the time being, to give them maximum rest. “After months of preparation, they moved in mid-September. Under anesthesia, in a safety net, in a van straight through the zoo. They are now monitored 24 hours a day. They are quite at ease, the lionesses rather than Dembe. He’s a bit of a wimp. I sometimes think he wouldn’t have lasted long in the wild.”
Predator gallery demolished
A new lion enclosure was a long-cherished wish in the Amsterdam zoo. The old Kerber terrace dates from 1927 and was considered innovative at the time because there were no bars around it. “It was even considered spacious. In old photos you can see that sometimes as many as seven or eight lions were kept there,” says Ter Meulen. However, by modern standards the terrace is completely inadequate. Plans for expansion have been in place for some time. In 2015, Artis took steps to demolish the typical nineteenth-century predator gallery, where tigers, panthers and lynx were kept.
But new accommodation costs a lot of money, and the corona crisis struck. Zoos had to close three times – even though it costs 60,000 euros per day to keep Artis running. In January 2021, Artis announced that the lions would leave for a French zoo. It caused a commotion among visitors and in the media. Former footballer Sjaak Swart wanted to raise money, because Artis without lions was like Amsterdam without Ajax.
Ultimately, the move did not go through. The French zoo could not make room for the Amsterdam lions. Later that year, two anonymous benefactors contacted Artis who wanted to finance a new stay. And so landscape architect Thijs de Zeeuw was able to put the designs, which he had already started together with architect Alexander Lefebvre, back on the drawing board.
A hill is beautiful for the king of the beasts
De Zeeuw previously designed the enclosures for the elephants, the gharials, the cassowaries, and the owl ruin with cranes. “The first question is always in such a city zoo: where do you find the space? We concluded that the place where the algae gazelles were at that moment was the best. There was already a hill there, so it was very suitable for the king of the animals to look out over his kingdom,” grins De Zeeuw.
He’s only half ironic. In all his designs, De Zeeuw tries to change the relationship between humans and animals and to stimulate a different view of animals. “I want to make that relationship more equal, even though the animals in zoos are of course in our power. We often unconsciously look down on animals, so in the design I ensured that you often have to look up to see the lions. That is very different from the old Kerber Terrace, which was actually a kind of theater.” Ter Meulen: “All you had to do was put your child on the gate and point: ‘look, a lion’. They were always available. But you have to look for them in this new enclosure.”
Heated rock for lion and man
This can be done from several places, De Zeeuw shows. “When you come around the corner, you can unexpectedly come face to face with a lion. Intended as a moment of shock, experiencing the sensation of being a piece of meat in the domain of a predator. This rock here is heated, we hope it will become a favorite spot of the lions. On the human side of the fence we have just such a heated rock to sit on, so that humans and lions mirror each other.”
The site is designed with places in the shade and in the sun, in the wind and in the lee, with a lot or little distance between the lion and the visitor. “The point is that the lions have as much choice as possible,” says Ter Meulen. “In zoo jargon: choice & control. In the past, many animals often waited at the door at four o’clock because they got their food then and there. Here we can hang a cow’s femur in the tree and the lion decides when he eats.”
The global population of wild lions has halved in thirty years to just over 20,000 animals, conservation organizations estimate. It shows the big gap between the lion in our experience and the real lion with whom we share the world. De Zeeuw: “We all know that the tiger is disappearing, that is our problem cat. We don’t realize this about lions, precisely because they are so ubiquitous in culture.”
Discussion about the right of zoos to exist
Telling these kinds of stories is the justification for Artis to continue showing lions in a historic city zoo – even now that the discussion about the right to exist of zoos has flared up again. Many other large animals have been said goodbye to over the past twenty years.
Artis no longer has polar bears, tigers, hippos and orangutans. Is that a conscious policy? Ter Meulen: “We do not have a conscious policy to no longer keep large animals, but we do make conscious choices. We look at the welfare of each animal, the need for protection, opportunities for education, the practical possibilities of the stay, and to what extent we can accommodate the natural way of life. Hippos, for example, are herd animals, so you shouldn’t want to keep them alone.”
It is currently being considered whether the chimpanzees should remain in Artis, which has again caused petitions and unrest among visitors. “I understand that well,” says Ter Meulen. “With great apes, just like with lions, you also have a slightly different emotion. But you may wonder whether Artis should want to show two types of great apes; we also have the gorillas. The gorilla enclosure offers us many opportunities for adjustments that benefit the well-being of the monkeys, which is future-proof. This is different with chimpanzees. Nothing has been decided yet, but we are now having that difficult discussion.”
Connection between humans and animals?
Many zoos are responding to their critics by pointing out their role in international breeding programs of endangered species, education, and the need to create a ‘connection’ between humans and animals, especially now that modern humans are more alienated than ever from the nature. For such a connection, don’t you need the larger, well-known, spectacular animals? Ter Meulen: “With the large animals it is easier to convey a kind of awe. But the challenge is to capture the attention of the public, even with smaller animals, and to show how special they are.”
De Zeeuw: “If you want a spectacle, you should look at the meerkats, which now live among the algae gazelles. How the two species interact with each other, how the meerkats have dug an underground tunnel system, how they sit on high stones while their group members safely search for food. You have to learn to see all that a little bit. If possible, we no longer get the animals in the zoo on a silver platter.”
The official opening of the new lion enclosure will be on October 5. The lions have already been given the opportunity to get used to the outdoor area. The opening ceremony is performed by schoolchildren who organized a sponsored run for the zoo during corona times, and by… Sjaak Swart.
In Amsterdam’s oldest museum, man is equal to animals and plants
Any question can be asked in the Groote Museum van Artis. Eating human flesh? The visitor can decide.
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