on May 3, 2013
As a teacher, I often chose the Wilhelma as a destination for the annual day out with my pupils. The young ones like it and the older ones don't care anyway where they're taken to, they're only interested in each other. To keep the pupils' minds occupied I composed a questionnaire. It was a great hit and many colleagues copied it. I don't know if it's still in use now that I'm retired.The Wilhelma is unique in Europe because it's a zoo as well as a botanical garden. When in 1829 springs of mineral water were discovered near his Castle Rosenstein, King Wilhelm I of Württemberg wanted to have a bath house built in the Moorish style which was à la mode in those days. Although the buildings are really pretty, the nickname 'Swabian Alhambra' is wildly exaggerated in my opinion. For a long time the Wilhelma was only a botanical garden; about 1000 different kinds of plants grow there now, most of them in glasshouses. During WW II the grounds were used to grow vegetables for the starving population of Stuttgart. It was only in 1951 that the first animals were exhibited. They began with antelopes, zebras and giraffes, one year later Indian elephants and tigers arrived. Nowadays more than 8000 animals belonging to more than 1000 species live there. The exact number of animals can never be given. There's an extensive insectarium in which being born and dying happen by the minute.To make sure that you pass all animals you should learn the word 'Rundgang' (Round Tours). The sign with this word leads you through the whole zoo. If you don't follow it, you may pass some animals twice and not see others at all. The area of the Wilhelma isn't too large, however, and if you have a good sense of orientation, you can find your way in and out without problems. I won't lead you along the whole Rundgang but only pick out some stations.I've noticed that youngsters aren't much interested in plants. They rarely look into the glasshouses although there are some beautiful flowers and impressive cacti to admire. I like Echinocactus grusonii, nicknamed Mother-in-Law's Cushion, an enormous pouf-like thing with long spines all over (Let me state that I never had a reason to wish my mother-in-law such a seat!).Youngsters prefer animals. From the pretty building where the tickets are sold - worth a look - we walk straight on towards the aquarium. On the left is a row of glasshouses, filigree constructions of glass and iron, on the right lawns, flower beds and a small pond with a flock of flamingos.Q: How many flamingos are standing on one leg?This question is the only one in my questionnaire which is also an IQ test. It's nice to see when at the end of the tour the answers are compared and suddenly the eyes of a smart pupil are lightening up when they realise that this question can't be answered satisfactorily. Btw, there is no winner, at the end all pupils get an ice-cream.Q: Which fish has the same name as a member of the staff of our school?Suffering from claustrophobia I used to wait outside the aquarium until my pupils came back. It's too small, dark and stuffy inside for my liking. Besides, although I don't think that fish are highly developed animals, I doubt that they enjoy being forced to swim in tiny glass cases. Once my pupils came back shouting excitedly, "There's a fish with your surname!" Were they pulling my leg? They were so serious that I went in and had a look. Indeed! A small edible fish whose habitat is the upper Rhine has my surname. I'm a bit disappointed about its inconspicuousness. There are so many brilliantly colourful fish, I'd rather have one of them as my sibling. But to tell you the truth, I'm not brilliantly colourful, either. So, another question was added to the questionnaire.Q: What's the (approximate) diameter of the leaves of the water lilies in the pond of the Moorish Garden?In front of the aquarium is a basin for seals which are fed at regular times. This is always rather amusing for the visitors. If it's amusing for the animals is something we'll never know. From there one can move on to watch other animals or go to the glass house simulating the Amazon rain forest following the Rundgang sign or make a detour to the Moorish Garden, the heart of the Wilhelma. You can admire the largest magnolia grove of Europe north of the Alps, especially beautiful around Easter when the trees are in full bloom. In the centre of the garden is the Water Lily Pond. It's heated up to a temperature of 28-30°C thus providing the perfect habitat for tropical lotus flowers and water lilies. The Victoria amazonica and Victoria cruziana are the largest of the world, their giant leaves can carry a weight of 70 kg. Koi carp babies grow up in the pond and can be seen flitting through the water.Q: Where can you see two different species living together in one enclosure / cage?When I was composing my questionnaire at home I only remembered a rocky area where mountain goats and monkeys live together in harmony. So much so that baby monkeys cling under the bellies of female goats drinking from their teats. My pupils were more attentive than me and found several other examples of peaceful cohabitation. Q: How old is the oldest gorilla? What is the name of the youngest chimpanzee? How many bonobos are there? What is the name of the biggest orang-utang?There are always lots of people in the building housing our closest relatives. The apes play with each other or lollop on the 'furniture' they have or entertain themselves by watching 'their' closest relatives. It's said that they recognise regular visitors and greet them accordingly. I remember one visit when the chief of the gorillas was sitting close to the pane, elbow on his leg, chin in his hand watching the human beings on the other side. He reminded me of the sculpture The Thinker by Auguste Rodin. Maybe he was pondering on the question if evolution was worth the effort if the outcome was what he saw there.The Wilhelma has the greatest apes' kindergarten worldwide. Human foster mothers look after baby apes who were abandoned by their mothers. When they're four years old and have reached adolescence, they're sent to other European zoos. The usually integrate easily because they've grown up in a group and have learnt social behaviour. This is a point where it becomes difficult to criticise zoos. If they didn't work with and for endangered species, the list of extinct animals would be longer and soon people would know wild animals only from computer animated films. But to see active animals kept in tiny enclosures in zoos breaks my heart. If their species became extinct, who'd suffer? We would, they wouldn't. Nature will never die, only change. Lions may be content to be fed and lie around lazily all day, but tigers who're used to roaming through the jungle or the taiga for miles on end are a heart-breaking sight. Yet the other day I heard an argument against liberating them which must be taken into consideration: Tigers born and raised in zoos wouldn't survive in the wild, they'd quickly starve because they don't know how to hunt.Elephants in a zoo are also a sad sight. Every morning before the gate is opened for the visitors, the keepers take the elephants for a ride through the grounds of the Wilhelma. Good to hear, but it's not the African savannah, is it?Q: How many black stripes does a zebra have from snout to tail?I've never bothered to count myself, but as over the years my pupils have always come up with the same number I think I've got the answer now. I won't tell you, though. Go and find out for yourself. The zebras are together with wild donkeys, and the giraffe house isn't far away.Q: How long is the longest snake?The reptile house isn't my favourite place but looking at snakes doesn't make me feel bad. I think they hang on a branch in their tiny cubicles just as they do in their natural habitat. Alligators don't seem to suffer, either, but what do we know?There are many more animals to see, many more thoughts to be thought, many more discussions to be had. I think it's best to walk up to the restaurant from where you can overlook the zoo and rest for a while. You'll agree with me that as far as zoos go the Wilhelma is a positive example. If zoos are positive as such is a different topic.
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