When I was younger, I didn’t have much of an opinion about animals. I certainly didn’t dislike them, and I would never wish bad things on them, but I just wasn’t terribly interested. My family never had pets save for the odd goldfish. This coupled with the fact that we lived in a city where wildlife consisted of pigeons and squirrels that actively avoided people meant that I was never really around them and they tended to make me uncomfortable. Loud dog barks especially made me cringe because they hurt my ears, and I misinterpreted many dogs’ playfulness as aggression.
Fast forward quite a few years- my then boyfriend (now fiancé) brings me to his house to meet his family for the first time, which includes a black lab/German shepherd named Maxine. Up until this point, the most in depth interaction I’d had with dogs was at a charity dog wash a few months earlier. My college service organization was in charge of soaping up, rinsing, and drying the dogs, and I came to be mildly comfortable petting them, washing them, and leading them on leashes. But Maxine didn’t want to be pet, or washed, or led. She wanted to be friends. This actually made me begin to wonder about other animals.
Slowly but surely, I realized that I actually was interested. I wanted to watch and observe them, I wanted to read about them and understand them, I wanted to donate time and money to causes that furthered care and conservation efforts. I had turned into an animal lover, and that’s why I was so glad that we had the chance to see the Tiergarten Schönbrunn during our visit to Vienna.
I will not pretend to be an expert on zoos, nor try to act like I did mountains of research on the subject. I’m sure with a little bit of investigation you could easily prove a case for or against them, and I’m also sure that all zoos are a little bit different from one another. All I have to go on is my experience visiting a few different zoos/wildlife preserves in my adult life and what I was told by the experts there. I have chosen to trust the institutions that presented these points to me, and keep faithful that they are working toward the well-being of the animals.
With all of that being said, initially, we were not planning visit Tiergarten Schönbrunn. Vienna had lots to see and lots to do, and we have zoos close to home. But then we discovered that this zoo is actually considered the oldest in the world. It began as an imperial menagerie in 1752, built at the order of the Holy Roman Emperor. Now, baroque style buildings from the original design are interwoven beautifully with modern structures and it touts itself as being a home for over 700 animal species. After we spent the morning touring the beautiful Schönbrunn Palace, we ended up at the gates of the zoo and figured, why not?
It was a great decision. At first it wasn’t seeming so, when we discovered that our water bottle had a hole in it and it was a hundred degrees outside. But we pressed onward anyway and I was delighted at what we found. First we simply wandered, entering right near the rhinos, who greeted us as we interrupted their lunchtime. The “enclosure” they were kept in was hardly enclosed at all. Small plants, large trees, and fallen logs made a sort of natural barrier between us and them, and we mused for a bit about how odd it was to not have a fence to protect us. We continued around to find a multitude of birds and owls, watching us as we passed. Suddenly we realized that we were following a very lush pathway and crossing a high, scenic bridge. It was like we had left the real world and entered a magical forest. Peering around and under the trees gave us views of other animals, like deer, wolves, and black bears, and when we finally emerged from the tree cover, we were somewhere near the arctic.
This new exhibit honoring polar bears only opened about a month before our visit, and we consider ourselves incredibly lucky! It was a highlight of the day for us. Despite the heat the polar bears were incredibly active- swimming, strutting around, playing with big red balls, and climbing on the rocks. They are such beautiful and powerful animals, it was mesmerizing to just stare at them as they went about their playtime. When I was in college I was part of a community service group (the same one that organized that dog wash, actually) that sectioned itself off into groups named after animals, and I ended up in the polar bear group. Ever since then, I have had a special soft spot for polar bears. Seeing them so up close was a wonderful experience. All of the signage around the area was in English as well as German, so I was able to learn a lot about their habits and lifestyle. Chris and I spent quite a bit of time checking them out before moving on to the penguins.
These little guys were just too adorable! I just happened to have my video camera out, recording, as one of them seemed to stare at me. As I turned and slowly moved on, he followed me all the way down the tank.
We were very sad to leave the cool air-conditioned comfort of the arctic, but luckily more adventurous animals awaited us out in the sunshine. We stopped to say hello to a big, mischievous family of meerkats, listened to some monkeys’ distinctive sounds as they swung from tree to tree, popped in on a giant tortoise, and observed an elephant nursing her young.
Last, but certainly not least, we paid the pandas a visit. The pandas were beautiful and their home was just lovely, but they were a little lazy. We were able to get pretty close as they napped and chomped bamboo, and it was my very first time seeing pandas in real life. While we were watching the two adult pandas, rumors were swirling around the viewing area that there was also a baby panda living at the zoo, but for some reason he was not out on this day. This rumor was all but confirmed when we visited the gift shop later on to find all kinds of merchandise celebrating the baby. I was sad that we didn’t get to meet him but happy for the time we got to spend with the two adult bears. While at the gift shop we were able to stock up on gifts for Chris’s mom, who is a big panda collector.
We left the zoo a little tired, very hot, but overall in high spirits. I was so glad that we saw so many beautiful, active animals. Initially we had wondered if the time would be better spent doing something else, but clearly it was time well spent. Check out the video below to see just some of the cool creatures we visited with!