In April 2007 Olaf Paterok and myself took a ten-day tour to see the most important and interesting zoological collections in Portugal and to visit the new Omega Parque in the south of Portugal, which unfortunately has announced that it is to be closed very soon. During our tour we learned that we were lucky to see a number of other collections which are on the point of changing their appearance or closing. So it was the right time to do a survey and get an impression of the current situation of zoos, zoo design and wild animal husbandry in Portugal.
The old and historic Lisbon Zoo is currently having a facelift. Though many buildings and some exhibits are listed, a number of buildings have been demolished, such as the well-known carnivore house, the polar bear pit and the gorilla house. The children's zoo has been moved to the entrance of the cable lift and a new pool behind the Dolphinarium has been built in the last two years.
A medium-sized area above the elephants was transformed into a paddock for 2.0 okapis who arrived in 2005 from Cologne and Antwerp. The ancient elephant house is listed and has therefore been retained, with a new part added which preserves the Moorish appearance of the building. The group of 1.3 African elephants with two calves will also get some space added to their current outdoor enclosure, for which the old polar bear rock has been demolished. A modern bull stable and protected contact facilities are being installed.
This is not the only new addition to the zoo. The carnivore house and the veterinary clinic, which had been sited one behind the other, were pulled down and a large new ape house was built on the same site. Unfortunately the – now very common – artificial rock-style exhibits do not at all match the general appearance of the historic zoo architecture from different centuries. The splendid group of chimpanzees has been split up – one half was send to Brazil and the others were brought to the new house. Two (1.1) Sumatran orang-utans from Zürich and Ramat Gan came into the collection and the 1.2 gorillas left their old house for the new quarters as well. The old gorilla house – one part of it dated from the 1930s! – has already been demolished to make way for a new rhino or hippo exhibit. We can only recommend every person interested in zoo history to ask the staff at Lisbon for permission to look into the historic Palacio dos Chimpanzes – the chimpanzee house – before it is demolished. They will be impressed by the size of it. Back in the 1960s and 1970s it was a regular ape house with a large row of cages on each side of it – and open to the public.
Some years ago a large part of the zoo was transformed into an amusement quarter with its own Zoo McDonalds, rides and the historic gardens. This part is freely open to the public. Surprisingly, it is here that one will find the best animal exhibit at Lisbon Zoo. In total contrast with the management's general policy of making animals easily visible to the public, this island for squirrel monkeys gives the animals many ways to move and hide from the public.
Entering the zoo by the new entrance, one's eye is caught by a large construction site a few hundred metres inside the zoo grounds. A former paddock for hoofstock and a pelican enclosure have been replaced by two new tiger enclosures. These two exhibits for Sumatran and Siberian tigers will be of the same style, with a steel-netting cover, as the new roofed enclosure for two white tigers close to the hippo exhibit. Right behind the new ape house, a brand-new row of six enclosures for large cats takes the visitor's attention. Jaguar, leopard, snow leopard, serval, ocelot and European lynx were on display, but we found no reference to any subspecies on the signs. We were surprised by the very large aperture size of the steel mesh covering the enclosures – a paw of a jaguar, let alone any smaller cat, would fit through one of the holes. Moreover, the extremely small distance from the net to the visitor barrier worried us a lot. Jaguars in particular are well known for trying to grab people. The public cable car passes directly over the exhibits. While doing the lift tour and coming across the cat area we detected a single clouded leopard 'behind the scenes' in one of the shut-off rooms.
Behind the ten-year-old dolphinarium we found a new pool with a really strange sight. A single almost fully grown pilot whale (Globicephala melas) was swimming in the shallow pool while two animal trainers tried to encourage it to do something. We assume that this animal had been washed ashore or was found sick.
During our tour around the zoo grounds we missed the mandrills and colobus monkeys which we had seen on a previous visit. The Japanese macaques who lived on the polar bear rock before it was demolished were moved to the old monkey pit with a lot of funny miniature houses in it. This pit – with the houses in it – is another listed building. The group of olive baboons (Papio anubis) that was previously housed in the pit had been transferred to the large gymnasio – the historic hamadryas baboon cage. We were surprised to realize that both species had simply been put together in this cage. Obviously a lack of space has caused some problems for the zoo authorities in properly managing their large stock of primates. An almost unbelievable total of 35 primate species (as some exhibits were closed, we imagine the real number may be as many as 40) should surely force the management to send some species out of the collection. The housing for many of the primates does not meet current standards and the minimum size for exhibits that EAZA demands its members to provide for their animals. Readers will imagine our surprise when we learned that, far from sending animals away, Lisbon Zoo is taking new species in, as they are doing for example by obtaining part of the group of Javan langurs from Omega Parque.
Komodo dragons, Indian rhinos, dolphins and koalas are only some of the crowd-pleasers attracting more than a million people every year. Dozens of parrots and hornbills, a children's farm and a beautiful group of Angolan giraffes are appreciated as well. But when one asks if there is any highlight that would encourage people to come back and again pay the entrance fee of €14.50, one comes to the inevitable conclusion – giant pandas. The 26-ha Lisbon Zoo does not provide a lot of space for such a high number of more than 330 species, and especially for so many large mammals. We would love the zoo authorities to send at least the white rhinos away. Their housing in a tiny enclosure is just as miserable as the old bear enclosure, and two rhino species in a small zoo like Lisbon is really not necessary. (Unfortunately the zoo is currently waiting for a young female white rhino from South Africa.) To improve this will be the next project for the zoo in modernizing its animal housing. On the other hand, many new enclosures and some enlargements of existing exhibits show a general attempt to take a step into the modern zoo world and meet international standards. If the policy of displaying just everything rare and attractive can finally change to one of building up a carefully selected collection, the process of transformation into a modern zoo will be successful.