Copenhagen Zoo

Roaring lions, cheeky chimps and Tasmanian devils. Copenhagen Zoo is a veritable Noah’s Arch, offering a world of family entertainment and hope for the planet’s endangered wildlife.

By Theresa Valbæk

Copenhagen Zoo has been an all-time favourite for generations of young zoo-goers and their families. With more than 3,300 animals representing 264 different species, Copenhagen Zoo is not only one of Europe’s oldest zoos but also one of the most diverse, featuring a whole world of shrieking, squeaking animal life to explore.


Animal planet

Like all of the world’s leading zoos, Copenhagen Zoo is undergoing dramatic transformation from that of pure family entertainment to caretaker of endangered species, both in the wild and in specially designed habitats. This sometimes involves moving animals out of the Zoo altogether as when in 1998 the Zoo’s gorillas were transferred to a Danish safari park, Givskud Zoo, where the mighty kings of the African forest have been given a spacious new habitat at a dignified distance from gawping humans.


Copenhagen Zoo is also committed to wildlife reintroduction programs, such as the release into the wild of captive lion tamarins, marmoset-like primates named for their bushy manes. Since 1980, the native Brazilian population of this highly endangered species has risen from 200 to more than 1000 today thanks to the program, which is co-sponsored by Copenhagen Zoo. Malaysia also benefits from a wildlife program managed by Copenhagen Zoo, involving the study of the elusive tapir in a wildlife sanctuary 130 km out of Kuala Lumpur. And in South Africa, two Danish zoologists sponsored by the Copenhagen Zoo have for a number of years tagged and monitored rhinoceros populations in the Pilanesberg National Park in an effort to better ensure the survival of these magnificent beasts.


But perhaps the most popular breeding program at Copenhagen Zoo is that involving four specimens of the fiendishly named Tasmanian devil, which is unique to European zoos. The devils were a christening present – albeit an unusual one – to young Prince Christian of Denmark, who was born to the Royal Family in 2005 and were an official gift from the native island of the Prince’s mother, Crown Princess Mary. These Tasmanian marsupials have since drawn large crowds to the Zoo’s unique Australasian habitat next to roaming kangaroos and wallabies.


A seal in a bathtub

When Copenhagen Zoo first opened in 1859, range-roving rhinos and artificial tropical biotopes were hardly imagined. Inspired by the Berlin Zoo, founder and ornithologist Niels Kjærsbølling was granted permission to open a small zoo by the leafy hilltop estate of the royal summer residence Frederiksberg Palace. A rickety wooden pavilion displaying the founder’s private collection of stuffed birds was the Zoo’s first spectacle along with a motley menagerie of eagles, owls, chickens, ducks and rabbits in addition to a solitary fox on a chain, a seal in a bathtub and a tortoise in a bucket.


From its humble beginnings, Copenhagen Zoo soon became a popular attraction, rivalled only by Tivoli Gardens. It remained a family-run business until it was finally floated on the stock market in 1872 to generate the capital needed to construct the many redbrick buildings, which today often serve as mere picturesque backdrops. The herbivore house, constructed in 1875, is nevertheless still used for its original purpose and now houses the Zoo’s prized family of tapirs. The most conspicuous structure of all – the 45.5 metre Zoo Tower – offers sweeping cityscape vistas across the neighbouring manicured royal parklands.

Family fun

Copenhagen Zoo today receives public funding in addition to generous sponsorships from private and corporate benefactors. Among the modern habitats to have benefited are the tropical biotope with its hummingbirds, butterflies and alligators and the African savannah habitat with its giraffes, zebras and wildebeest. On the drawing board is an amazing new structure for the Zoo’s Asian elephants – descendents of specimens once given as gifts by the King of Thailand to young Prince Christian’s great-grandparents. The bold new design for the elephant habitat is by none other than urban icon architect Lord Norman Foster.


Other cherished attractions at the zoo include the nocturnal habitat, which features cuddly bush babies and not-so-cuddly bats in an astounding nocturnal bat cave, and the reptile house with its slithering snakes and spooky spiders. Among the Zoo’s indigenous Scandinavian animals are seals, brown bears, musk ox, reindeer, moose, polar bears and wolves. And for bird lovers, the founder’s stuffed specimens have long since been replaced by aviaries and bird ponds among quiet walkways and well-groomed lawns and flowerbeds. Here you see splendid exotic birds from every corner of the planet.


There is something for everyone at Copenhagen Zoo, not least the young. A petting zoo allows children to cuddle and feed barnyard favourites such as goats, rabbits, and ponies. And there’s plenty more: Entertaining feeding time for the penguins, walrus and seals. Peeping prairie dogs, ruminating camels and wallowing hippos. And tours of the Zoo by miniature train and plenty of cafés and restaurants to keep the whole family on the go. Billed as ‘The Wildest Place in Town’, Copenhagen Zoo is certainly a world of fun.