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Hellabrunn Zoo

The world’s first geographical zoo

Naked sunbathers, barbecue enthusiasts and cyclists are not the only creatures to be found on the banks of the Isar. The riverbanks also play host to wildlife from all over the world. Bears, lions and camels can all be seen, albeit behind bars, at Munich’s zoo, in Thalkirchen.
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Hellabrunn Zoo was founded on August 1, 1911. Its oldest building is the Elephant House, which was designed by architect Emanuel von Seidl in 1910. The building boasts gray and green cylindrical copper roofs, reminiscent of India’s Taj Mahal. The original exterior of the Elephant House has been maintained over the years, although the interior has been renovated and rebuilt to provide more room for the zoo’s expanding elephant family—six elephants, namely one male and five females, live at the zoo nowadays compared with the sole elephant who resided there in 1914, when the building was completed.
The elephants can wander outside into a large enclosure, where visitors to the zoo can watch them meander, take a dip in the heated pools or even perform during the daily elephant show. Children can also enjoy a ride on one of the zoo’s camels, which live in a nearby enclosure.

Munich’s zoo was closed throughout both world wars, when many of the original buildings were destroyed. The aquarium, opened in 1937, is one of the oldest buildings that remain intact. Its exterior hasn’t been altered, but the interior was renovated recently, when new pumps, filters and technical equipment were installed.

In 1928 Heinz Heck, a former zoo director, came up with the idea of turning Hellabrunn into the world’s first “geographical zoo,” arranging animals by continent instead of by species. The concept is still in use today. Hellabrunn Zoo shows animals in their natural surroundings and specializes in breeding species threatened with extinction. All over the world, man is impinging on the natural habitats of countless wild animals and birds, making it all the more important for zoos to breed from their stock and attempt to reintroduce the animals to their homes. One of Hellabrunn’s successes has been Przewalski’s horses, the last surviving wild-horse subspecies. Discovered in Mongolia in the late 1870s, the 1.3-meter-high horse was once common to the vast grasslands of Central Asia and may be again if captive breeding programs like Hellabrunn’s succeed.
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The zoo’s latest addition is the Tropical House and adjoining coral reef. The building aims to meet the living requirements of man’s nearest relatives, namely gorillas and chimpanzees, based on ethological findings and the zoo’s experience in husbandry and breeding of threatened primates. An ultraviolet roof spans a tropical landscape of about 1,870 square meters and lies next to a 13-meter-long coral reef, which provides a home for tropical fish and underwater plants.

The squirrel monkeys are always up to their tricks in the Primate House—some even jump on visitors’ shoulders. In the Australian section of the zoo, wallabies and kangaroos hop around. Meanwhile, big cats, including lions, panthers and jaguars, prowl behind the barriers of the Jungle House, which is also home to free-flying tropical birds. Visitors can view large reptiles and insects in the Giant Tortoise House. And then it is on to the African part of the zoo, where you can see the graceful Mhorr gazelle, which have been declared extinct in the wild. You can peer through the glass panes of the Polarium to watch penguins, seals and polar bears at play.
Children particularly enjoy the seal show before visiting the Children’s Zoo, where they can stroke domestic animals, including goats and sheep. Kiang, taking and Indian rhino can be found in the Asian part of the zoo. Free-flying tropical bats, meanwhile, send shivers down your spine in the Villa Dracula, where an infrared camera peers into the bats’ sleeping quarters. Visitors shouldn’t leave Hellabrunn without having visited the 23-meter-high Large Aviary, which is the biggest of its kind in Europe. And, once you’ve had enough of the beasts, how about observing an equally peculiar species, with a spot of people watching at one of the zoo’s numerous cafés? Entertainment guaranteed!

For more information on opening hours and how to get there, visit

© MF Jones/June 05

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