The industrial revolution caused Rotterdam to expand rapidly after 1850. At the edge of the city, at the current location of the Weena Towers, the Rotterdam Zoo was founded. An oasis of peace and quiet for the richer residents of Rotterdam, a place to escape from the hassle of the grey city.
The construction of the railroad in 1847 gave Rotterdam more than just quicker means of transportation. Single men Hendrik van den Bergh and Franciscus van der Valk had a passion for birds. Their employer, the Dutch Iron Railway Company (Hollandsche IJzeren Spoorweg Maatschappij), let them use a small piece of land alongside the railway where they could accommodate their feathered friends. The men spent every minute of their spare time at their plot.
They created little paths between the birdcages, and put in plants and a pond. In no time this lovely park was well-known among the residents of the city. Nannies and their charges came to feed the ducks and travelers would kill some time there waiting for the next train. The collection of birds initially consisted of ducks, chickens and a black-headed gull but grew steadily, an osprey being the masterpiece of the assortment of birds. Johannes Roosdorp, the new station agent of Delftsche Poort Station saw its potential and wanted to turn the Spoorboschje (Railroad Bushes) into a real zoo.
The Spoorboschje expands
For the common man this meant the end of his strolls through the little park. Around the plot a big fence arose and an entrance fee was charged. In 1856 a committee especially appointed for the occasion bought nine acres of land at the site of the current Central Station. At that time this location was hardly developed, it really was on the edge of the city.
The committee installed Pierre Henri Martin as the new director. This former and famous animal trainer was very experienced in training and taking care of wild animals. Construction work started on May 18th, 1857. Architect Jan David Zocher got his inspiration for the animal housings from other zoos. In 1839 Artis was the first Dutch zoo to open its doors but the London and Paris zoos were also good examples for the architect. The clay bottom of Rotterdam caused problems though: the famous lions’ den could not be dug out from the wet grounds. The animals ended up having a nice accommodation though: a rock formation surrounded by an iron cage.
Charity at the zoo
After the zoo opened everything was on track and the zoo became a truly delightful place to be. Just not for everyone. You would have to be approved by a balloting committee first to become a member. ‘Normal’ Rotterdam residents were only allowed to visit the zoo during two weeks every year. During the annual fair in August they could get a ticket for 25 cents at a special entrance. The Rotterdam Zoo was also a charitable organization: the orphans and the poor could enjoy a free visit to the zoo once a year. In the twentieth century the zoo slowly declined and income was too low, especially in the crisis years. The city council came to the rescue. The city had expanded and the zoo was now located in the middle of it. The city council needed these grounds to construct new main roads. The zoo sold off its grounds and was appointed their new, and current, location.
The zoo under attack
The rebuilding of the zoo started in 1938 and the zoo was nearly finished when on the 10th of May 1940 the Germans invaded the Netherlands. The animals were all ready to be moved into their new home on the 20th of May, but the bombing of Rotterdam on the 14th of May abruptly ended the whole operation. The old predator accommodations were destroyed and ash falls caused fires everywhere. Zoo keepers opened the cages to prevent the animals from burning alive. Animals that had escaped were running around the city in a panic.
The predatory animals that hadn’t died already were killed. The animal keepers did what they could and moved the surviving animals to their new location. Luckily, the new zoo, called Diergaarde Blijdorp (Blijdorp Animal Zoo) had been spared in the bombings. It opened its doors in December 1940, in the presence of German officers. From then on there was no more balloting; Blijdorp was for everyone.
If you want to see something other than live animals, come and have a look at our museum. Besides the cheerful Zoo chess set there are plenty of other pieces left to see.