The Haus zur Wildnis, a zoo in the forest

Erected at the edge of the Bavarian Forest National Park (BFNP) near the town of Ludwigsthal (Germany), the Haus zur Wildnis is a small zoo that keeps lynx, wolves, auroch-looking cattle, and Przewalski horses since 2006. Information about the BFNP, an organic restaurant and lockers are available inside the spacious visitors center, a good starting point for trips into the northern part of the forest known as Falkenstein-Rachel. The Haus zur Wildnis (house of wilderness) is described as a “Tier-Freigelände” and “naturnahe Tierhaltung”, so I imagined it was a reserve or a sanctuary where animals live in semi-wild conditions. In fact, predators are packed in small, fenced pockets of forest and wild horses and auroch-cows are kept in ordinary paddocks, much like farm animals. Not so wild.

I never enjoy observing wild animals confined in man-made habitats because all I see behind the bars is a sterile distortion of nature. It does not get any better when the zoo lies in the woods. The idea of bringing nature to men in a box, even a green one, is a fantasy. Through an illusion of proximity, zoos likely disconnect rather than sensitize visitors to the wilderness because the sightings are so artificial and stranger to the complex realities of nature. Adding patches of green here and there conceals this situation to ensure wider acceptance by the masses but rings as an apology rather than a favor to the animals. Growing up accepting the notion of wildlife captivity as the norm, it seems we already started off on the wrong foot.

Whittington Menagerie

The lion fight at the Whittington Menagerie, UK (1864). Source: original image available here 

In former times, zoos, then called “ménageries”, were the lot of the rich, the privileged and the powerful such as monarchs, princes or aristocrats. With good reason zoos were defined as an establishment of luxury and curiosity (French Encyclopédie Méthodique, 1782-1832) in the 18th-19th centuries. Animals were then considered decorative or bizarre objects to be used and abused at will for the entertainment of men, a reality that persists in various parts of the world today although we might not think of it that way, e.g. SeaWorld killer whales and other circus animals.

Since the late 20th century, many zoos have claimed a shift towards better animal welfare. In addition to providing a “popular family fun”, as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) puts it, zoos have become a place of scientific research, breeding programs of endangered species and may partake in field conservation. Part of their role is now to educate professionals and the general public. Accreditation by institutions like the AZA, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) or the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) vouch for this refreshed approach to captivity.

However, this new raison d’être did not get zoos off the hook, on the contrary. The utility of zoos with respect to conservation and education is hotly debated. Opponents are not satisfied with enhancement; they demand suppression. Various practices performed in the name of conservation are decried by animal rights groups and so far there is no tangible evidence that visitors go green after a stop by the zoo. It is no surprise. The chain of events that could improve a species’ condition in the wild is far too complex for people to see how their individual behavior can help conservation efforts. Besides, getting anyone to commit to a cause they have not experienced firsthand is hard and this is where zoos are failing because they propagate impressions of nature that are unreal.

With respect to conservation, zoos act at best as palliatives to the failure or absence of national wildlife conservation policies, e.g. the Przewalski horse in Mongolia although in this case the initial reintroduction impulse did not come from zoos. Furthermore, the conservation argument fails to explain why the vast majority of captive animals are not endangered.

Menagerie Royale

L’incomparable Ménagerie Royale. Source: A. Rieke-Müller, Lothar Dittrich: Unterwegs mit wilden Tieren. Wandermenagerien zwischen Belehrung und Kommerz 1750–1850, S. 24. This image is in the public domain.

The Haus zur Wildnis appears to be one of such progressive establishments where animals are properly handled by qualified staff. Yet, how ironic to build a zoo on the site of a national park, especially one that has built the reputation of being the largest and wildest in Central Europe, sometimes referred to as the “green roof of Europe”. There is also an anomaly in keeping specimens of native species behind bars at the edge of the park while others roam free a few hundred meters away, like the lynx. 

According to the Bavarian Forest 2010 Park Plan, the Haus zur Wildnis was created “above all for environmental education” of the general public in addition to “recreation”. In fact, visitors are given the opportunity to meet indigenous species they would not otherwise be able to observe in the park due to political and territorial constraints (wolves) or because the animals are scarce and elusive (lynxes). In this respect, the Haus zur Wildnis mirrors the impracticality of creating a richer ecosystem—one that includes large predators—within the current park boundaries.

The BFNP is a long, narrow stripe of alpine land dominated by mid-high elevations between 650-1420 m and lacking real lowlands. On this limited habitat resources essential to wildlife survival, reproduction, dispersal and migration (i.e. water, food, shelter, and space) are not available year round. Species like red deer and wild boar would normally spend the winter on lowlands, but this habitat overlaps with human populated areas around the park. Expression of these wildlife seasonal patterns was therefore denied from the start through installation of various winter feeding enclosures on the park.

Another problem is the limited presence (lynx) or absence (wolf) of ungulate predators. Without them, the ecosystem is incomplete, but reintroducing them requires more space than is available on the park to accomodate their broad home and hunting ranges. With a total surface smaller than 1,000 km2 (24,250 ha for the BFNP and 68,064 ha for its Czech counterpart, the Šumava National Park or Bohemian Forest) the park cannot contain enough predators to control ungulates. Active management to keep ungulate populations to a level consistent with the carrying capacity of the park is therefore necessary. Each year for example 50% of the red deer are selected from the winter enclosures by the park wardens to be eliminated.

Lynx, Bayericher Wald

Lynx at the Bayericher Wald. Credit: Aconcagua

The Eurasian lynx is a symbol of these challenges. Extirpated in the area in the mid-19th century due to increasing human presence and activity (habitat loss and fragmentation caused by agriculture and deforestation, decline of ungulate populations, hunting, persecution), the elusive wild cat was clandestinely reintroduced in the BFNP by conservationists in the 1970’s. The lack of information and involvement of local stakeholders―the general public and weighty interest groups, namely hunters and farmers―awoke their discontent, leading to a second wave of extinction. Between 1982 and 1987, 18 individuals from the Carpathian Mountains, which spread over Romania, Poland and Ukraine, were reintroduced on the Czech side on the park―officially this time―and since the 1990’s, a small (about 10-15 individuals) but stable number of lynxes resettled on the German side.

A local study from 2008-2009 showed that the cat’s home range can reach up to 700 km2, with lynx densities comprised between 0,4-0,9 individuals per 100 sq km depending on the monitoring method (camera or GPS). Despite their small population, lynxes have been spotted in rural areas, beyond the park boundaries, disgruntling local communities, especially farmers. Hunters claim that by their sole presence lynxes make roe deer hunting more arduous. Although it is true that the Eurasian lynx―the largest of all four lynx species and third largest European predator―primarily feeds on ungulate preys, this argument reflects an intolerant hunting philosophy. Hunting requires skills, patience and luck; hunters should never expect an easy prey, only hope for one. The impact of lynx predation on roe deer is nevertheless under assessment. Lynxes were found to prey on 0,7 to 1,2 roe deer/sq km/year against 0,7 to 10 for hunters under the present hunting regulations. Their presence is believed to affect the territorial distribution and behavioral patterns of roe deer, but so far there is no evidence that they threaten the ungulate’s survival on the park.

Only the future will tell if a larger, sustainable lynx population can flourish on the BFNP. For now, conditions are inadequate for lynxes to develop much further but “key actions” are on the agenda under the impulse of the European Commission.

Haus zur Wildnis
Ludwigsthal, 94227 Lindberg
Opening hours: daily from 9:30 am to 6 pm.
Tel. +49 (0) 9922 500 20

Free admission.


Management and conservation of large mammals in the Bavarian Forest National Park, M. Heurich et al., Silva Gabreta Journal, Vol. 17 (2011), pp. 1-18.

First estimation of Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) abundance and density using digital cameras and capture–recapture techniques in a German national park, K. Weingarth et al., Animal Biodiversity and Conservation 35.2 (2012), pp. 197-207.

Home ranges, movements, and activity of wolves (Canis lupus) in the Dalmatian part of Dinarids, Croatia, J. Kusak et al., Eur J Wildl Res (2005) 51, pp. 254–262.

A Complete Mitochondrial Genome Sequence from a Mesolithic Wild Aurochs (Bos primigenius), C. J. Edwards et al., Plos One, Vol. 5 Issue 2 (2010), pp. 1-13.

The origin of European cattle: Evidence from modern and ancient DNA, A. Beja-Pereira et al., PNAS, Vol. 103 No. 21 (2006), pp. 8113-8118.


2007 AZA Report – Why Zoos & Aquariums Matter: Assessing the Impact of a Visit to a Zoo or Aquarium, Falk et al., 2007

Critic of the 2007 AZA Report – Do Zoos and Aquariums Promote Attitude Change in Visitors? A Critical Evaluation of the American Zoo and Aquarium Study, Marino et al., in Society and Animals 18 (2010) 126-138

Various book reviews of Savages and Beasts: the Birth of the Modern Zoo, N. Rothfels, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2002

Critics Question Zoos’ Commitment to Conservation, National Geographic, 13 November 2003

Zoo death: Bloody reminder of lives in captivity and skewed ideals, The Age, 7 February 2014

EU zoo expert: ‘Killing captive animals protects future populations’, Deutsche Welle, 23 March 2014

Costa Rica Is Still Fighting for the Right to Shut Down Its Zoos, Takepart, 28 March 2014

Zoos Drive Animals Crazy, Slate, 20 June 2014

Animal ark or sinking ship? An evaluation of conservation by UK zoos, Born Free Foundation website

Menagerie History and the Exhibition of Animals, The University of Sheffield, UK

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