One of the most beautiful zoos around the world is found in Budapest’s City Park, decorated with astonishing architecture and full of captivating creatures from near and far. The Budapest Zoo has a history of both delightful and tragic episodes, but its animals continually amuse us to this day. On the occasion of the Magyar menagerie’s 150th birthday, we take a look back at the wild saga of this living Budapest institution, while honoring its present-day attractions and providing a preview of the zoo’s future plans.
One and a half centuries of historyThe predecessor of the Budapest Zoo and Botanical Garden, the Pesti Állatkert (meaning “Pest Zoo”), was opened on August 9, 1866 at a marshy meadow. They built the ‘Great Lake’ back in those days, and completed a complex water supply network. Before the grand opening, Emperor Franz Joseph transferred 34 exotic animals from Tiergarten Schönbrunn as a gift, including a giraffe (which would definitely be included on the list of history’s hard-to-wrap presents); a brand-new home had to be built for the towering animal.
The Budapest Zoo was inhabited only by animals until 1872, when they started building the botanical garden. The green area and the walking paths were designed by Ármin Petz, head gardener, who also designed the historical park of the National Museum, among many other gardens. The buildings were designed by Antal Skalnitzky and Henrik Koch, who also designed the edifice of the University Library. Altogether, they built 11 romantic, Swiss-styled pavilions, and back then the animal kingdom’s star was a brown bear named Kristóf, who was the favorite of Magyar statesman Ferenc Deák.
The director who held the position the longest was Károly Serák, who employed numerous showmen and comedians. During these less culturally sensitive times, the zoo management moved a few Indian and African families onto the grounds to join animals from their regions, who held ‘live shows’ here.
The zoo was financed by donations from the public and by the income from shares sold, so basically, it was a privately established institute.
It continued to operate like this until 1907, when the Budapest
Zoo went bankrupt, and the government decided not to wait until the monkeys would get skinny enough to climb out between the bars of their cage, and took over the zoo’s management, opting for full reconstruction.
Among many other architecturally impressive animal shelters built during this time, the zoo’s iconic front gate was completed in 1912 according to the plans of Kornél Neuschloss, ornamented with Zsolnay Porcelain ceramics and mosaics made at the factory of Hungarian applied-arts genius Miksa Róth. The refurbished zoo opened in May of 1912, as one of the most modern zoos in Europe.
During World War II – due to the close proximity of the train tracks – the whole area was severely damaged. Almost every building was hit by bullets, and only 15 animals survived the attacks.
The subsequent period brought around big success, as the garden slowly stood back on its feet, and since the 1990s, the institute has been under constant renovations. One of the biggest investments of the recent past was the Magic Mountain, built inside the Big Rock.
A walk around the worldWalking through the ornate front gate, we make our way to the left, towards the Japanese Garden, which is enhanced with bonsais, a small lake, and plants reminiscent of Japan. Right next to the Japanese Garden we find the Palm House, at the end of which giant otters keep jumping in the water. Only a few steps away, we feel as though we’ve traveled thousands of kilometers away from Europe.
At the other end of the park, we find the most significant buildings of the Budapest Zoo around the Big Rock. The Eastern-styled Elephant House was built according to the plans of Kornél Neuschloss, the same man who guided the renovations in 1910. For the reconstruction of this edifice, the institute was later awarded a Europa Nostra Prize.
The majority of the buildings were designed by two of Neuschloss’s students, Károly Kós and Dezső Zrumeczky. Three of these – the Crocodile House, the Buffalo House, and the Giraffe House – were recently restored, but Neuschloss designed the Deer House, the Australian House, and the Indian House as well. The architects used many elements they saw on field trips to Transylvania, especially from the area of Țara Călatei.
The Palm House, the Aquarium, and the reinforced concrete structure of the Small and Big Rocks were constructed according to the plans of Gyula Végh.
The present and future of the Budapest ZooIn most families it happens that the children cause a big family scare at Christmas time, when they come up with the idea of adopting an animal. In Budapest, there’s no need to worry, as the tiny letters on the bottom of the contract that we never read say that the adopted animals cannot be taken home, so in the future, feel free to say yes, as the Budapest Zoo always uses all income for the right purposes.
At the moment, the creation of the Pannon Park, the Mesepark (Fairytale Park), and the high-tech biodome take up most resources.
This huge biodome, which would be even bigger than the Palm House, will be densely populated by plants and animals alike. A contemporary aquarium will adjoin this structure. From the outside, the biodome will look like a grassy hill, but the top will be covered with large glass surfaces that let some sweet sunshine inside.
With nearly one million visitors per year, 17 hectares of cultivated land, and 150 years of history, the Budapest Zoo can be described with various numbers, but we would rather describe it with all the cherished memories we can gather here. And if you ever have to chance to take your kids (well, anyone’s kids) here, visit a concert, or go on a date at the zoo, never miss out on the occasion, as you’ll certainly will never get invited to another 150th birthday party.