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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Zoo History: The Fishmonger's Son

The life of Carl Hagenbeck Jr. changed forever the moment the fishermen walked into his father's office.  Carl Sr. was a fishmonger, and he had a contract with these sturgeon fishermen to purchase their catch - all of it.  It just so happened that this time, their catch included six young seals, captured in the Elbe.  Not knowing what else to do with them, Carl's father tossed the seals into a holding tank and put them on display for a small fee.  To his surprise, the seals were a sensation; when the novelty wore off, he sold them at a profit and bought more animals to display.  In 1866, Hagenbeck offered his son, Carl Jr., a choice - inherit his father's vastly more profitable and reliable fish business, or take over their fledgling, modest exotic animal business. Carl chose the later.

Over the years, the Hagenbeck business grew by leaps and bounds until it was the foremost animal dealing company in the world.  With agents in every colonial port in Africa and Asia, Hagenbeck was responsible for importing many species which had never been seen in Europe or the United States before: the first black rhino, elephant seal, Mongolian wild horse, and African manatee, for instance.  The pygmy hippos that he sold to the Bronx Zoo in 1912, the first of their kind in America, sold for $12,000, the greatest price the zoo had paid for an animal up to that point.

When Hagenbeck's success began to encourage other dealers to enter the exotic animal trade, he found a way to beat the competition by providing an even more extraordinary service.  In capturing wild animals for zoos and circuses, agents were assisted by indigenous peoples, as exotic and unfamiliar to Europeans as the animals they sought: “no less wild then the beasts”, Hagenbeck declared.  Soon, he began arranged "ethnological exhibitions" - importing indigenous peoples from around the globe to tour Europe and essentially become a human zoo.  Lakota from the United States, Saami from Scandinavia, Bedouins from North Africa, and Ceylonese "devil dancers" from Sri Lanka were among the groups featured in these shows.

The exotics business - animal and human - provided Hagenbeck with the wealth and prestige that he needed to unveil his most ambitious project to date.  He had made his fortune supplying the zoos of Europe and America.  Based on his observations, he decided that he could do them one better.  Purchasing a potato field outside of Hamburg, Hagenbeck opened a zoo unlike any the world had ever seen before.  Among his many skills, Hagenbeck was a very capable trainer - unique in this era for his belief in training with positive reinforcement instead of brutal punishments - and he used this skill to learn how far and high animals could jump.  Armed with this knowledge and combined with his natural flair for showmanship, Hagenbeck designed the world's first "modern" zoo - open air enclosures, mixed-species habitats by geographic area, and predators and prey seeming to live alongside one another, but actually separated by hidden moats.  In essence, he created the naturalistic zoo exhibit.

The idea took a while to catch on - many of the older guard of zoo directors were horrified by the idea - but catch on it did.  Though Hagenbeck's zoo was destroyed (along with virtually every other German zoo) during World War II, his legacy lived on in the exhibits that sprang up in zoos around the world.  Animals that would have otherwise been banished to cramped indoor cages of iron bars and tile walls were given grass, soil, water, trees, rocks, and, most importantly, the chance to express natural behaviors.  The face of the modern zoo was changed forever.

And how different it might all have been if those fishermen had tossed six young seals back in the Elbe.

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