Athens, Greece, is an extraordinary capital city in Europe for many reasons. One of them is that it lacked a zoological park until 2000. This changed when Frenchman Jean-Jacques Lesueur, after living in Greece for over three decades, decided that Athens deserved a zoo. So Attica Zoological Park came into existence and opened its gates to the public on 16 May 2000.
Right from the onset the Zoo applied for membership to EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria), as its objective was to become acknowledged as a zoo that met the internationally standards for a zoological institution. After a temporary membership Attica Zoological Park was accepted as a full member in 2004.
Although it was initially just a bird park — home to 1100 birds from 300 different species, and the 3rd largest bird collection in the world — it gradually was turned into a regular zoo with species representing mammals, reptiles and birds of course. I
n this continuous expansion new species and enclosures were added such as: World of Reptiles in 2001; Greek Fauna in 2002; the African Savannah in 2003; the Big Cats section and expansion of the African Savannah in 2004; the Monkey Forest (a walk-through lemur exhibit) in 2005; Cheetah Land, a chimpanzee and gibbon exhibit, and Arid Lands (with bactrian camel and Somali wild ass) in 2008; and white rhinoceroses were added in 2010.
These additions increased the popularity of the Zoo, especially because they were in accordance with modern zoo husbandry principles. In 2010, however, the decision to keep marine mammals and have them perform in the brand new dolphinarium, turned out to be controversial.
Attica Zoo decided that being situated in a country surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea it would serve its purpose as a zoological institution to raise awareness about the threats that marine mammals face in the wild. Therefore, it established a marine mammals section with bottle-nose dolphins and California sea lions that was opened in 2010. The public can meet these ambassadors for the species living in the wild in the newly built dolphinarium. Here the visitors learn about the threats in the wild and the need for protection during the daily educational presentations/shows. But the Greek Green Party thought otherwise:
The Greek Green Party took Attica Zoological Park to court claiming animal welfare issues in 2011. According the Green Party “dolphinaria cannot offer the space, the social networks and the natural conditions that are essential for the dolphins and other marine animals, having as a result the suffering of the dolphins, exhaustion from the conditions of captivity and premature death.” In addition the Green Party claimed that the dolphins (coming from the Lithuanian Sea Museum) were imported without the correct permits and as far as they knew no planning permission were being given to Attica Zoo to construct the dolphinarium to hold them in.
In April 2011, a Provisional Order was issued by the Athens Court temporarily prohibiting the operation of the dolphinarium. BBC has sent a correspondent to cover the story and the controversy has been presented in The Sunday Times. In August 2011, the Greek court issued a decision declaring itself not competent to pass judgement on the case. Although the zoo claimed that the case in question has been decided permanently and that the company has been vindicated, this decision only addresses the ability of this particular court to decide the issue.
Nowadays, Attica Zoological Park covers a total area of 20 hectares, home to more than 2000 animals from 350 different species, including one of the five largest bird collection in the world. Its bird collection now comprises 250 species, of which 29 are endangered or critically endangered according the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™.
In the coming years the Zoo intends, through continuous development, to improve its contribution to the the objectives of information, education, recreation and conservation. These future plans include the development of an Evolution Museum with an emphasis on the Age of the Dinosaurs (“Dinosavropolis”) and an Aquarium of international stature (“Okeanopolis”)
(Sources: Attica Zoological Park website; Attica Zoological Park guidebook; Wikipedia)
Attica Zoological Park is located on the outskirts of Athens with several outlet stores as close neighbours. In this uninspiring environment you want to enter the Zoo as soon as possible, where the inevitable flamingos greet you. It is a small island in a very artificially looking pond with free ranging rabbits on the grassy borders. From there you start navigating your route through the Zoo, but whatever route you choose you will first pass several aviaries. Going left you find the psittacines, going right the birds of prey, and straightforward behind the flamingos you will find tropical birds.
A bit further along the footpath passing the birds of prey more aviaries are to be found. With the two walk-through aviaries for African birds and Asian birds as highlights. Both these buildings could easily accommodate a few small aeroplanes, and with their functional design they look like hangars. Although not very esthetical, these aviaries provide the birds ample space to fly around. The same thing can be said about the large aviary for the macaws, left from the entrance. I have never seen such a large enclosure for these South American psittacines in another zoo, and as far as I know this one seems to be fit for purpose.
The next-door sponsored endless row of common aviaries for the psittacines is a geographical mix of lories, conures, cockatoos, amazons, lovebirds, parakeets and the odd budgerigar. The number of bird species is impressive, but the psittacine cages lack foliage to my opinion. Furthermore, most of the bird species they keep are not endangered in the wild, and 22 species (out of 298) have been caught in the wild, which is still common practice I am afraid. The good thing is the Zoo admits that it still happens, but it also shows that it is all about displaying creatures to the public, and not exactly driven by nature conservation efforts.
Looking into more detail at the objectives of zoos nowadays, and the way they are addressed by Attica Zoological Park, it becomes clear that a lot of effort is going towards improving the living conditions of the zoo animals and the way they are displayed. There are works ongoing to extend the bear enclosure, and several plots have been allocated for future extensions. This is what you may expect from a zoo that opened its gate to the public just 12 years ago. There is an education centre where educational programmes are conducted for children of different ages. And in addition to the information panels at the enclosures, the birds of prey shows and the dolphin shows are being used to raise awareness and educate the public. Furthermore, guided tours are provided and summercamps for children are organised. All regular educational activities nowadays. The conservation efforts on the other hand are a bit poor I think. Of course they the Zoo takes part or promotes EAZA campaigns, such as EAZA’s Ape Campaign of 2011. But the Zoo’s own contribution to nature conservation is only focused on protection of dolphins in nature by actively participating in the design of devices that will help reduce deadly injuries to dolphins of the Aegean Sea, which are caught in fishermen’s nets by accident. And on the website it says that they are considering initiating dolphin assisted therapy with autistic children.
Apart from the walk-through aviaries there are three mixed species exhibits, which focus on geographical representation of the Zoo’s animal collections. One comprises species from Australia (Bennett’s wallaby, Cereopsis goose and emu) and another focuses on native species, wild boar, fallow deer and Cretan goat (Capra aegagrus cretica). But one of the best enclosures I think is the African savannah. The ostrich, Grant’s zebra, Rothschild’s giraffe, Kafue flats lechwe (Kobus leche kafuensis) and scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah) have a very large savannah-like plains at their disposal. Of course, the climate is in favour of such exhibits with these type of species, but it is beautifully set in this undulating landscape. And the sights of the hills and the city in the far distance makes it even greater.
The primates are found at three different spots. The monkeys represent Asia (e.g. Javan langur), Africa (e.g. De Brazza monkey) and South America (e.g. black-capped capuchin). It is remarkable how surprisingly low all the monkey enclosures are, which could be regarded as insufficient for the larger animals such as the langur and the De Brazza monkey. A few enclosures have lots of foliage and provide shelters and shade, but the langurs for instance are very much exposed to the public and do not have an enclosure that have the slightest resemblance with their natural habitat – the rainforest. Even worse is the enclosure for the black-capped capuchin. Though large, their exhibit looks like a desert with no foliage whatsoever and only artificial enrichment is provided with bamboo trunks and ropes. Nevertheless, the group seems to breed very well, as there are quite a few adolescent monkeys and newly borns on display.
The monkey forest is located past the African savannah and houses ring-tailed lemurs and black-and-white ruffed lemurs. This walk-through exhibit with free roaming Madagascan primates is not a forest at all with only one tree within the area. But fortunately it has got a grassy bedding, shrubs and lots of enrichment materials.
The apes are represented by the Siamang gibbon (lesser ape) and chimpanzee (greater ape) and can be found on the right side from the entrance in bar-less enclosures. It seems that these are one of the latest extensions to the Zoo with a complete artificial climbing structure for the gibbons as enrichment. I suppose the gibbons would have prefered large trees to climb in.
Considering the enclosures for the predators, regardless where they are housed on the premises, it can be said that except for the ocelot none of them provide many places to shelter from the prying eyes of the visitors. The predator enclosures are relatively large, none of them bar-less, and for the cat species high level observation or resting platforms are available. The big cats enclosures (Angola lion, jaguar, puma, white tiger) all have the wall opposite the public painted with landscapes that hints at their original habitat, which is fine as it hides the concrete. At the cheetah enclosure, which is located somewhere else from the other big cats, a wall is missing to create such a painting, because it is completely surrounded by wire mesh fences. The visitor can navigate around the cheetah enclosure, nevertheless the trees and shrubs provide ample space for the animals to hide when they want. It is suggested by an information panel on cheetahs at the fence of the adjacent white rhinoceros enclosure that the cheetahs are allowed in this huge area sometimes. This would be great enrichment for the fasted land mammal, when true of course.
Three other cat species are housed somewhere else, the Eurasian lynx, European wild cat and caracal. The lynx and wild cat in the European quarter and the caracal close to other small African species such as the secretary bird, ground hornbill, meerkat and porcupine. The three caracals are housed in a beautiful exhibit with rocks, sand, succulents and other shrubs.
Three of the cat species had offspring at time of visit, the puma, the ocelot and the white tiger. The latter had two cubs on display of which one was very active and playful (see video). With regard to education they say that white tigers are not albinos but animals with a different genetic constitution. They forget to mention that the different fur colour is a result of the homozygous occurrence of a recessive allele in the genome. And that the result of breeding white tigers in a zoo, which attract lots of visitors, has led to genetic defects (inbreeding). Therefore the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in America adopted a white paper in 2011 which barred member zoos from breeding white tigers. More information on white tiger issues here at big cat rescue.
To see the bottle-nose dolphins perform you have to pay an additional entrance fee of three euro. As I am not in favour of keeping dolphins in captivity in zoos, I skipped this part of the Zoo visit. I think raising awareness about the need for protection of these marine mammals can be done without keeping them in cramped pools, even if you exercise them and let people experience the intelligence of these animals. It is too much entertainment to my opinion. Edutainment they call it at Attica Zoological Park.
Finally, although pleasantly surprised by the spacious enclosures for many animals, with the African savannah as a highlight, I was struck by the confusing way how the Zoo’s animal collections are grouped. Especially when you consider the fact the Zoo development and design started just over a decade ago, it is strange you find animals grouped by geographical origin, by habitat, or by taxonomy. For example, this leads to a situation that you find the Eurasian lynx and European wild cat on the opposite side of the premises from the other cats. And the two ape species (gibbon and chimpanzee) are not housed close to the other primates. This mixing up of species does not support the Zoo’s education efforts I think.
Nevertheless, I spent a nice sunny afternoon in Attica Zoological Park and was not disappointed at all by what I saw. The scheduled extensions are promising as it will provide the opportunity to rethink the set-up of the Zoo (the grouping of the animal collection I mean).
There are two white tiger cubs, but there’s only one playful. Nevertheless, easily bored so it looks for a playmate. One of its parents act as a willing victim, but is a bit large to prey upon for this little rascal:
This black jaguar cub wants to play and experiences that its parent has one of those days that fun will not last forever:
The male Eurasian lynx knows very well that this tree is not stable, yet he is giving it another try:
These chimps know! When the sun sets it is bedtime:
It is always fun to watch animals getting feeded; with these ring-tail lemurs and black & white ruffed lemurs it is not different: