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.
Even though only just over 20 years old, this is one of the oldest zoos in Portugal. The history of the collection is still visible in some parts and in the general shape of the whole park. About 10 km north of Oporto, the small (2.5-ha) zoo is located close to the airport. When entering the zoo grounds one is surprised to find that the first part is a free-entry area showing only birds. Here the exhibits and aviaries are quite new and in very good condition. The species one finds range from lesser flamingos to curassows and ostriches, as well as crowned cranes, waterfowl, turacos and parrots. We were interested in the colourful litter-sorting system (which we were to see in some other Portuguese zoos during the next few days).
Going a bit further, one comes to a second gate where an attendant asks for your ticket which you should have bought when entering the zoo grounds. The entrance fee is €4.50. The second part is much more a traditional zoo with small exhibits, as we had expected to find. First we saw European lynxes and leopard cats (Prionailurus bengalensis) in traditional cages, followed by some small and very old-style barred carnivore cages. It was clear that these had been heightened at some time. Here we saw a single male mandrill living together with some porcupines. The following cages held pumas, a single tiger and both black and spotted leopards. In the centre some cages which housed lemurs had been modernized with glass windows replacing the bars. On an old map we saw that talapoins had been held in these cages before, so we hoped to find them later on in another part of the zoo. What we found right away were three capuchin monkeys of two species (Cebus apella and C. olivaceus) in one cage. Further on we saw three (1.2) lions in a pit enclosure and a single male hippopotamus in a small and very traditional hippo exhibit, consisting of a land area and a very shallow pool. We had not yet reached the most interesting part when we found a dreadful bear pit with 1.1 European brown bears (Portugal's only bears except those at Lisbon Zoo) and a totally inadequate chimpanzee cage for 1.3 animals. After that shock we saw small enclosures for two pairs of silvery marmosets and were approaching the next unpleasant experience, a single male orang-utan in a tiny glass-fronted room. This animal – a hybrid named Samson born at Hanover Zoo – had been housed in that extremely small den for more than five years after being given to Maia Zoo as a present by Fuengirola Zoo, Spain. (These facts we found out later when checking the orang-utan studbook.)
In a few central paddocks a group of zebras – including a maneless zebra (Equus quagga borensis) stallion – wallabies and muntjacs were displayed. On an interesting small island with access to the surrounding trees there was a group of lar gibbons. When leaving this part of the zoo we found a large cage with what seemed to be a group of vervet monkeys, but when we took a closer look at the animals we found two little guenons with large ears that seemed to be – and really were – the talapoins we had been looking for. In fact they were northern talapoins (Miopithecus ogouensis).
The part we had saved for last was the reptile house and sea lion show. The entrance of the zoo is alongside a huge building which contains a large "Exotarium". The "Arca de Noé" (Noah's Ark) on two levels shows some crocodiles in pits and some of the commonly displayed reptile species such as boas, pythons, green iguanas and a monitor. The small nocturnal part has sugar gliders (Petaurus breviceps), an African civet cat or Cape genet (Genetta tigrina), Egyptian fruit bats (Rousettus egyptiacus) and a common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula). A number of tanks contained fish and amphibians. In front of the building an extremely small pool for a single female South African fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus) was quite disappointing, but the show with that poor animal and its trainer was quite a unique event.
When leaving the zoo a large – more than 15 metres long – statue of a lying woman caught the visitor's eye. It seemed to be for education purposes and was open to walk in. Inside the statue one could see the organs to learn the physiology of humans. Interestingly, this statue – named "Boneca Eva" – was originally located at the children's zoo at Lisbon Zoo until they rebuilt this area for the zoo's hundredth anniversary in 1984; it was then transferred to Maia for the opening of Maia Zoo in 1985.
All in all we found quite a big collection of primates, with 15 species: black-and-white ruffed lemur, red-fronted lemur (Eulemur rufus), common, silvery and black-tufted marmosets (Callithrix jacchus, C. argentata and C. penicillata), brown and weeping capuchins (Cebus apella and C. olivaceus), mona monkey, vervet monkey (Chlorocebus aethiops), northern talapoin, mandrill, rhesus macaque, lar gibbon, orang-utan (hybrid) and chimpanzee. There were also seven cat species – leopard cat, European lynx, puma, tiger, lion, jaguar and leopard. The bird and reptile collection was also quite big for such a small place.
This small zoo still has a lot of its original enclosures, and even though they try to keep everything very tidy and well decorated with nice vegetation, the housing of the large animals under such conditions does not find much approval from Portuguese animal rights activists in the year 2007. As we later learned when talking to staff at other zoos, the Zoo da Maia has already been forced by the national authorities to agree to relocate all the large mammals to other collections in due course. The chimps are supposed go to Lagos Zoo and the orang-utan to a zoo in Brazil. All the large cats and bears are to find new homes at some of the few better zoos in Portugal. These local "zoo insiders" doubted whether Maia Zoo would be closed down, but they were all quite sure that it would have to change its stock a lot.