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This review written by John Tuson and reprinted by Kind Permission of International Zoo News
At Landau Zoo, every corner is carefully cultivated; at Karlsruhe Zoo a very German tidiness and sense of order is forever present. Totally different to both is Saarbrücken Zoo, a sprawling, rather messy place, where a distinctly un-German shabbiness is all too prevalent. But while the collections of Karlsruhe and Landau contain few real rarities, at Saarbrücken can be seen a plethora of unusual species: Malayan bears, echidnas, aardvarks, drills, and one of the best collections of lemurs in Europe. Saarbrücken is an odd sort of zoo: its grounds and its buildings both suggest a terrible shortage of funding, whilst one or two enclosures smack of wasted money. Typical of the zoo, perhaps, is its large `Africa House'. The idea is a good one: a roomy house, with a nocturnal section, in which to display a cross-section of zoogeographically related species, whilst telling the story of those animals and their continent. The actuality is rather less impressive. Saarbrücken's Africa House is a supremely ugly building -- a nightmare of concrete and peeling metalwork -- detracting attention from the animals it houses (even the giraffes seem dwarfed by it) whilst having all the aesthetic charm of a small-town multi-storey car park. The building's success is further compromised by a Byzantine system of visitor access, which has the intrepid zoo-goer constantly doubling back on him or herself, an unimaginative range of interpretative materials (a few moth-eaten displays look singularly unappealing), and an animal selection policy which sees such un-African species as cotton-top tamarins, kowaris and green acouchis rubbing shoulders with the more geographically correct defassa waterbuck, Chapman's zebra and brush-tailed porcupine. Far from providing an exhilarating voyage of discovery of the wildlife of Africa, the interior of the building is a breezy barn, with one or two cages dotted here and there. Despite its intrinsic ugliness, this could be a wonderful zoo exhibit, with the potential to display animals in a truly relevant way. It needs money to be spent on it, admittedly, but more than that it needs imagination, thought and care.
Close to the Africa House are gorillas and chimpanzees, housed in a rather depressing fashion, and cheetahs, who do somewhat better. This being the African section of the zoo, one can also see short-nosed echidnas and white-fronted marmosets! Elsewhere, similar liberties are taken with zoogeographic theming. The excellent lemur collection is logically housed in the Madagascar area. A large group of ring-tailed lemurs occupy an airy enclosure, whilst their relatives -- Sclater's, red-fronted, white-fronted, ruffed (black-and-white and red), Mayotte and black -- can be seen in a simple, but nonetheless very reasonable, house. That house is also home to a number of reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates, and encouragingly a number of them are every bit as Madagascan as a ruffed lemur. But, unfortunately, many of them aren't, and in the Madagascar house can be found reptiles from Asia and South America. And if one seeks material to explain Madagascar, to explore its unique wildlife and its special problems, then you have come to the wrong place -- so, for the vast majority of visitors, the house will be nothing more than a place to see some strange monkeys and a snake or two, when it could be so much more than that.
Saarbrücken's best enclosure is a simple but enormous cage for a group of lar gibbons, which supplies a wonderful stage for the cavorting of its inhabitants. Meanwhile, families of those two most impressive African primates, mandrills and drills, can be seen in rather cold, rather dismal, rather cramped, heavily barred cages of the type which one might normally expect to encounter in a zoo in one of the more impoverished former Soviet republics. The Malayan bears do just as badly, while one of the zoo's newer enclosures -- for Brazilian tapirs -- is a riot of artificial concrete: it must have cost a great deal more than a simple fence, which would have done the job just as efficiently and several times more attractively.
Saarbrücken is another relatively small zoo whose collection is of the type which one might usually expect to see in a larger establishment. There is no reason why it should not display that collection in an excellent way -- the zoo's site, on a slab of wooded hillside, is rich in potential -- but, for the moment, there is still some way to go. Money is in short supply, obviously, but so too are flair and inspiration, commodities which are often far more valuable than hard cash.
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