In Artis, animals will soon have to compete with trees for attention

Zoos are often criticized. How do you keep animals in cages in the twenty-first century? In its quest to stay relevant, the Amsterdam Artis Zoo will show nature much more than just animals. Including the man who threatens nature. “We have a beautiful theater to tell this story.”

Noel van Bemel

Those who visit Amsterdam’s Artis Zoo often house the chimpanzee’s outer enclosure. There, Amber, Sabra, or Quincy clean each other or eat an orange in their hammock. But who else catches a glimpse of that thick tree, to the right of the equipment shed, in the imposing Heimanseik from 1750? Probably no one. While the oldest tree in the capital there is also doing its job: absorbing water and minerals from the earth, purifying the air with its leaves and surviving without moving a step.

If it was up to director Rembrandt Sutorius, from now on visitors will also visit the ancient oak tree. He thinks Artis should start telling these kinds of stories. Because the oldest zoo in the Netherlands (1838) is also a private arboretum: it has 750 trees on thirteen hectares, with 200 different species. There is also a botanical garden with edible flowers and plants, a museum about invisible (microscopic) life, a planetarium for the bigger picture, an academy for workshops and lectures, there are beautiful huge buildings.

master plan

As far as Sutorius is concerned, Artis’ animals will now compete for attention. He wants to raise a mirror for visitors, and get them to think about key topics like biodiversity and climate, even if they’re already coming in for an elephant and an ice cream. Anyone who comes out again a few hours later, that’s ambitious, already has a slightly different view of their role on Earth. He. She Artis 2030 master planThat will cost more than 100 million euros, was presented to 150 employees of the zoo on Thursday. The plan has been in a drawer for nearly two years due to Corona.

“It’s ambitious, yes,” says director Sutorius in his office next to the griffon vultures. They’re watching from their lofty positions when the Chief comments on Artis’ new map. Look, here will be the Groote Museum about the place of man in nature, here will be the renewable planetarium in which we also display climate forecasts, there will be a fourth pond with sustainable water purification, there will be a food street where visitors can learn about the impact of our diet. Artis was founded 183 years ago by the Natura Artis Magistra Association, which wanted to bring nature closer to humans. “Now we will bring people closer to nature again.”


Rembrandt Sutorius, Director of Artis, at the Zoo Museum.Statue of Jos Dobelmann / de Volkskrant

According to him, this is urgently needed, as biodiversity is rapidly declining and the Earth is heading towards catastrophic climate change. “We have a beautiful and unique stage to tell this story. Not by pointing fingers, but the intent is for you to leave here as a different person. According to Sotorius, this fits with Artis’ social goal. “We are an institution, we are not on this earth to make money.”

slaves and dwarves

The plan comes at a time when zoos are under pressure from animal activists. For example, various organizations wrote in a letter to the Amsterdam city council last year: “The confinement of animals for the amusement of people is disrespectful and goes back to the time when slaves, pygmies, humps, and hunchbacks were kept.”

According to Sutorius, the animal population of Artis has decreased from 1,500 to 500 in recent decades, and he believes this decline will continue for a while. “We were once a philatelist. Now we constantly ask ourselves: Are we still proud of the Artis zoo part? He mentions the elephant barn as an example. Not only has this increased in size, but he thinks it provides more opportunities for natural behavior.” Find food, Swim, scrub rocks, hide, take a mud bath.” Visitors can experience a lot up close. The love of nature that a child develops at such a moment cannot be achieved through a picture book or a movie about nature. I am convinced.

The Groote Museum will be an important part of the new Artis, a massive building that will reopen as a museum this spring after years of restoration and renovation. “Everything comes together here,” said Artistic Director Heig Balian of that museum – the predecessor of Sutorius until 2017. Here we connect people to their environment in an associative way: with microbes, with animals, with plants. Through artistic installations that make you think.

As an example he mentions a comparison between the sap flow in the large plane tree in front of the door and the blood circulation of the visitor. According to Balian, the museum helps answer the big questions. “As a human being you are not above nature, but you are a part of it.”

Elsewhere, Artis offers ways to better interact with nature. For example, the Micropia Museum, which is about unseen life, will soon make more space for microbes that eat plastic or algae that generates energy. The planetarium, which will receive a new building, will display predictions about the consequences of human behavior on Earth, such as deforestation or changing animal populations, including alternative scenarios.

Astronomer Milo Grotgen: “We are still telling the story of our place in the universe, but we will also display the data collected by satellites.” According to him, these enhance the effect of the overview; The feeling many astronauts get back after seeing the little blue planet hanging in the frigid darkness. There is no plan B; We know that, but we don’t act like it.”

food street

It will be a brand new food street with exhibits on the impact of food production on the Earth, cooking workshops and an ambitious restaurant with an experimental and sustainable menu. Sutorius: “Food production is the biggest threat to biodiversity worldwide. Think palm oil and soybean plantations, large-scale livestock farming. We’ll tell that story. With your food behavior, you can contribute to a more sustainable world three times a day. Restaurant Also open to non-Artis visitors.

According to tourism researcher Goof Lukken (University of Breda), Artis is taking an additional step in the current trend among zoos to become more socially connected. They have been reducing the number of animals in their groups for decades and underscore their commitment to education and nature conservation. For example, the English Chester Zoo funds nature conservation projects in twenty countries, and the Apenheul Foundation also owns a sustainable coffee farm in Peru near Apeldoorn. They try to share such stories with their visitors, but it is not easy according to Lukken. Research shows that most people go to the zoo to spend quality time with their families or to please their children. The experience of nature is only third.

Lukken expects a lot from the Groote Museum, which is furnished by the same team as Micropia. “They aspire to the top. A transformative experience for visitors of all ages, which is the highest achievable in the world of museums. Lukken also considers costs (over a hundred million euros) and intended growth in visitors (from 1.4 million to 2 million annually) somewhat ambitious. The Netherlands has thirteen zoos that together have attracted 10.5 million visitors for years Nowhere in the world is the competition so fierce I don’t expect Artis to be able to turn things around so completely.

winter cherry blossoms

Animal rights activist Adrie van Steijn (a friend of animals in the Netherlands) sees no future for Artis. “At most as a shelter for injured or abused animals.” Locking up animals and taking their babies is unacceptable, according to Van Steijn. Even if it is used to fund nature conservation projects? Look at it from the perspective of the individual animal. What does it mean that you have to do with it?’

Van Steijn supports the extinction policy of all zoos. Even if it caused the extinction of animal species. ‘Why keep breeding species no longer found in the wild?’ Then you keep a group, while the animal itself does not benefit from it.

“I understand the feeling,” Sutorius says. But he says keeping animals in captivity serves a higher purpose. He points to the big eagle in front of his window. ‘He ended up here after a crash in Spain. We use chicks to recreate eagles in Sardinia.

However, most of the animals in Artes cannot be returned. We connect millions of Dutch people and tourists with nature. Anyone who feels affection for animals, plants, or trees is likely to protect him. Sutorius expects zoos to increase their role in nature management in the coming years. “If preventing species extinction isn’t the starting point, well, then it stops.”

When Artis reopens, visitors can immediately participate in the new Tree Recognition for Beginners course. Gardener Jantien Koenders, also a playmaker, refers to the winter-blooming cherries that still bear flowers. Explain why poplars make such noises when the wind blows. She shows how the 130-year-old Platanus Orientalis is like a castle above all and over everyone. ‘I hope visitors will perceive the green spaces in their environment in a different way. Yes, even the softest person it becomes.

Chimpanzee enclosure with the oldest Amsterdam oak behind it, Heimanseik from 1750. Image Guus Dubbelman / de Volkskrant

A chimpanzee enclosure and behind it the oldest oak in Amsterdam, Heimanseik from 1750.Statue of Jos Dobelmann / de Volkskrant

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