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.
Finding this large and brand-new park is not very easy as the owners have some problems with the city authorities in putting road signs at significant places. It is located around 100 km east of Lisbon and lies in a valley full of holm oaks (Quercus ilex) and cork oaks (Q. suber). This beautiful and typical Portuguese landscape provides an important environment for many native mammals and birds and also some seasonal birds. Here one can see such birds as the hoopoe, little owl and scops owl, and also common genet and many bat species. Some years ago, probably influenced by the beauty of this place, a Portuguese couple founded a zoo. The woman is the daughter of a now-retired curator from Lisbon Zoo.
The way from the entrance gate to the entrance building is quite a long drive and made us realize the large area of the whole property. The entrance fee was €10.00. In 2007 Monte Selvagem ('wild mountain') is only in its third season and some development projects are still in the future. New species such as large cats are expected to be coming into the collection, as well as more species for the safari. It was here that we first experienced a truck safari in Portugal. As we had done this before in other European zoos such as Port Lympne, we were surprised when the driver stopped every few hundred metres and personally explained about the ostriches, rheas, zebras, Ankole-Watussi cattle and elands, instead of having a speaker to help him. The safari leads through a former cork oak plantation with brilliant very old vegetation and a central lake. Having seen the few very common species in the safari area before and not understanding Portuguese, we looked around and enjoyed the birdlife in the trees. It is important to bring binoculars on this trip, which takes around 40 minutes.
The whole developed area of the park is quite small at the time of writing, and the number of species is small as well. They have a very nice children's zoo with goats, sheep, chickens and rabbits, a crocodile exhibit with Nile crocodiles, a bird show with a great eagle owl and a small restaurant. Everything is built very attractively of wood. The landscaping with plants, many carvings and beautiful signs gives the park a very pleasing appearance. A very well-designed logo and internet presentation help to raise Monte Selvagem's reputation for professionalism. In contrast, however, the enclosures for some of the smaller animals are very disappointing. The civets in a rabbit cage were shocking and the raccoons in a small, dry pit made a poor impression, as did the reptile barn. Exhibits for ring-tailed lemurs and Japanese macaques were all right - at least by current Portuguese standards. At the end we found a cage for two species of guenon, moustached and vervet monkeys. Most of the animals had been confiscated from private holders, as we later learned when talking to the owners. The first cage to see when entering the park was a round cage for a group of Formosan squirrels (Callosciurus erythraeus thaiwanensis) - white animals who were active and very interesting.
In the future the park's owners will have to invest more energy into designing animal-oriented exhibits, especially as projects for keeping large species like big carnivores are planned. It is the old problem of how and where to place confiscated animals that obviously leads the Portuguese authorities to ask new and inexperienced zoos like Monte Selvagem to house such difficult species. Especially for primates, it is not enough to carpenter a primitive cage and put the - sometimes maladjusted - monkeys in.