It was a long drive to Wroclaw, site of the EAZA conference. What would have been a better idea for refreshing ourselves than taking a break at a zoo? Opole Zoo was the closest to the route, so visiting it was beyond question. I have never been there before; all I heard about it was that a tragic flood almost destroyed the zoo in 1997. This short trip proved to be very useful eventually; I got to know a very impressive and atmospheric zoo, which could be an example for any zoo situated in a similar natural environment.
I always prefer if a zoo is in a natural environment, which is of course only my subjective opinion. Urban zoological gardens with a lot of artificial elements seem to be detached from the idea of conservation; they look more like a historical museum than an island of nature, even if this alone does not reduce the quality of these zoos. Nevertheless, while approaching Opole Zoo through the beautiful woodland environment, I began to suspect that something very interesting was waiting for me. The entrance building of the zoo looked modern, simple and modest from the outside, but after entering the zoo I was surprised. The first glance told everything about the main strength of Opole Zoo: balanced, organic natural design and orderliness. The design did not rule the landscape but it made the zoological elements merge into the natural environment.
There are two things I would like to explain in more detail. I think it is a mistaken approach to emphasize architectural elements. I know it is very difficult to make architects (and managers) accept the hiding of their masterpieces, but a design that dominates the area looks strange and unnatural. I call them “opening designs”; these are only good for official opening ceremonies when they are the centres of attention. But if you regard the zoo as an organic entity, these individual extremities could destroy the feeling of unity. In addition, it should also be important to develop every part of the zoo consistently. It is sad to see that the improvements are usually restricted to certain parts of the zoo. You can see huge modern and good new facilities – and neglected ones in their neighbourhood. Why must a disaster happen to think about the development of the whole zoo? I know, in most cases it is impossible to reach the same level at every facility, but in many zoos the differences are too large. I am sure that the weakest points determine a zoo as much as the newest improvements.
Let’s return to Opole Zoo. The first things to strike me were: the exhibits fitted well into the natural environment, fences and other barriers were optically hidden as much as possible and all enclosures presented the natural habitats. The fences were covered by plants; there were several small waterfalls and interesting tree logs as design elements. The gardens and visitor areas were beautiful and atmospheric from the nice wooden benches to the playgrounds. I really liked the huge number of tiny but good ideas in the exhibits. For example, even the infra bulbs were hidden by branches, many fences were made from sticks, owls could rest in hollow tree trunks. The enclosures were large, comfortable for the animals and provided good vantage points for visitors without visual barriers. There were many spacious mixed-species exhibits, for example for kangaroos or the South American panorama.
The base of the species collection was mainly mammals and birds but there was a nice amphibian house as well. There were no extreme rarities, but it was a decent collection, where you could see the typical ‘zoo species’ of several taxons. As I could see, sustainability was an important factor in collection management; so it was not a “stamp collection” and they might avoid too big and expensive projects. There were many primates, from lemurs (Lemuridae spp.) through many Callithricids to apes (Hylobates lar, Symphalangus syndactylus and Gorilla gorilla gorilla), carnivores, European birds and ungulates. I liked Gorilla Land and the large pool of Californa Sea Lions (Zalophus californiacus) very much – where they hold shows (that I missed, unfortunately). The modern exhibits of Felids were also notable: all of them were spacious, tall with dense vegetation to provide enough hiding places.
Public services were also characterized by orderliness and cleanliness, from the wooden playground through a buffet to the toilets. The species information boards were nice and informative. Unfortunately, similar to many other zoos in the Eastern part of Europe, there were much fewer interactive educational boards/games than in Western European zoos. Does anybody know the reason of it? I don’t think it is only the lack of money, maybe it’s different expectations?
So, I recommend visiting Opole Zoo both for professionals and ‘ordinary’ visitors, it is a very pleasant and interesting place, a good example of an organic zoo. It is not prohibited to copy their idea…
Some information of the zoo:
It was founded in 1930.
The area: about 20 hectares.
Number of animals and species: about 1000/240.
Member of EAZA and WAZA