Warsaw Zoological Garden on Ratuszowa Street became an inseparable part of the landscape of the capital 90 years ago. During all these years, its fate was closely linked with the history of Warsaw. However, before it could be established in the location where it exists to this day, a lot of time has passed and a lot of water flowed under the bridges on the Vistula.
The first wildlife parks in Warsaw were created at royal courts. In the 17th century, the menagerie of the Vasa court was located on the slope of the Kazimierz Palace. It was the location where the scene of Zagłoba’s encounter with monkeys, as described by Henryk Sienkiewicz in The Deluge, took place. King John III Sobieski was famous for his love of animals, as well as for having gathered a large collection of exotic species in a menagerie at the Wilanów Palace.
In the 19th century, new zoological gardens were established in European capitals and Warsaw was no different in the efforts to open such a facility, but the difficult situation after the fall of the November Uprising led to the postponement of this investment. Although several private zoos were set up, all of them ceased to exist after a few years. On 17 June 1884, a wealthy attorney, Jan Maurycy Kamiński, established a zoo on Bagatela Street as a joint-stock company. The ranks of its shareholders included a number of companies, including Blikle, which exists to this day. The garden enjoyed great popularity. Unfortunately, after six years of operation, a tragic accident occurred – all predators in the garden died after eating poisoned meat. A decision was made to shut the facility down and the rest of the animals were sold abroad. The efforts to establish a new ZOO were thwarted by the outbreak of World War I. It was not until 1926 that a wealthy confectioner and a great nature lover, Mieczysław Pągowski, established a new zoological garden in Warsaw at his own expense and with his own effort. Initially, it was located on Koszykowa Street. The new garden was opened to the public in July 1926.
The interest was enormous, during the first seven weeks as many as 24,000 visitors came to the new garden. After a few months the zoo was moved to a slightly larger plot on 3 Maja Avenue (corner of Solec), near the Poniatowski Bridge. More than 70 species of exotic animals were gathered on a small, one-hectare plot of land. The menagerie included monkeys (12 species), bears (3 species), coatis, penguins, flamingos, parrots, pelican, Marabou stork, ostrich, kangaroo, porcupine, armadillo and alligator.
At the same time, on the initiative of Warsaw’s nature teachers, a menagerie of about 150 animals was established on 3 Maja Avenue (in the place of today’s National Museum). This place was called the “Biological Study”. The residents of Warsaw were equally eager to visit the second zoo. Unfortunately, it survived only for a year, and its end was quite dramatic. A fire broke out in the building that housed exotic animals, resulting in deaths of 30 monkeys and many other species.
The resolution of the city magistrate of 14 June 1927 established the Municipal Zoological Garden in the Praga District, which exists in that location to this day. The new garden was given an area of 12 hectares. Construction work began in August and in November the management of the garden was entrusted to Wenanty Burdzinski, former director and founder of the zoological garden in Kiev. The quick pace of construction allowed for the official opening of the ZOO on 11March 1928.
The newly established ZOO was inhabited by animals handed over by the “Biological Study” and bought from Mieczysław Pągowski, whose menagerie lost its raison d’être in that way. The collection of the new zoological garden included 475 specimens of animals, of which about 75% were birds, with mammals comprising the other 25%. During the first two weeks the garden was visited by over 6.5 thousand visitors.
In December 1928, Wenanty Burdziński died. It is worth mentioning that he died from severe pneumonia, which he suffered while working in the zoological garden with full dedication. During an unusually harsh winter, he personally participated in works aimed at preparing animals for the frosty weather without any regard for his own health.
After the unexpected death of the ZOO director, the city authorities launched a competition for this position. On 1 June 1929, the garden was taken over by Jan Żabiński, a young talented zoologist, assistant professor at the Department of Zoology and Animal Physiology at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences. The garden started to develop wonderfully, new facilities were established, including the monkey house, hippopotamus house, elephant house, giraffe house, polar bear enclosure and a seal pool), new animals were brought in, young ones were born. In June 1937, the famous elephant Tuzinka was born. It was the twelfth elephant to be born in captivity since zoos were established, and the only one born in Poland to date. The popularity of the Warsaw Zoological Garden had been on the rise year by year. Unfortunately, this wonderful period was interrupted by the outbreak of another war.
On 1 September 1939, the radio and the press announced an attack on Poland by the German army. On 3 September, the first bombs were dropped on the garden. The army shot all the dangerous animals. Some of the animals were slaughtered for meat for Warsaw residents, others were killed by bullets and some managed to escape into the city. The most valuable animals, including Tuzinka – a favourite of Warsaw residents – were transported to the Reich.
Although the majority of the garden’s animal inhabitants died, this did not mean that nothing was happening in the area of the Zoological Garden. In fact, it was quite the opposite, as many things of extraordinary importance happened there. Jan Żabiński, an active conspiratorial activist, secretly ran an explosives warehouse in the garden. Moreover, together with his wife Antonina, they hid Jews who had escaped from the ghetto in their house. Several of them were personally taken by Director Żabiński to the Aryan side of the city. Most of those who found shelter in the Żabiński villa managed to survive the war. In 1965, Jan and Antonina were awarded the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” for their deeds. The famous villa, called “The House Under the Crazy Star” by friends, stands in the Garden to this day.
In 1940, a pig-fattening plant was set up in the ZOO for the local population, and then, after it was shut down due to a dysentery epidemic, it was turned into allotment gardens. During the first days of the Warsaw Uprising, Director Żabiński, who fought in the Home Army units, was wounded. After the fall of the uprising, he was taken to a POW camp in the Third Reich, and his wife Antonina was forced to leave the Garden. Immediately after the war, she returned to the capital and, by decision of the Warsaw Magistrate, she began work with Jan Landowski (later director), to secure the ZOO’s assets.
In November 1945, after his return from the POW camp, Director Jan Żabiński started working in radio. Meanwhile, Varsovians increasingly demanded the reactivation of their favourite ZOO. In 1946, the first post-war meeting of the International Union of Directors of Zoological Gardens (IUDZG) took place in Rotterdam. The members of the organisation declared to help the Warsaw Zooological Garden by providing it with many interesting animals. In January 1948, the Warsaw Zoological Garden was restored by a resolution of the President of the City National Council, and Dr Jan Żabiński was once again appointed the director of the Garden. The fencing of the area, cleaning works and renovation of the surviving buildings began. New animals came from foreign gardens, some were also donated by private collectors.
On 22 July 1949, the Warsaw Zoological Garden was officially opened! In 1950, the Act on State Supervision of Polish Zoological Garden entered into force and established the Inspectorate of Supervision, and Director Żabiński was appointed its first inspector. At the end of 1950, Jan Żabiński unexpectedly resigned from managing the garden and since then devoted himself exclusively to popular science; he became the author of 60 books and about 1,500 radio talks on zoology.
In 1951, Jan Landowski, an employee of the garden in the pre-war period, became the new director of the Warsaw Zoological Garden. The 1950s were a time of intensive work and healing of war wounds. Renovation of the surviving buildings continued and new facilities were built, including a polar bear pool, an aquarium and a leopard house. In 1952, an enclosure for brown bears was established along the W-Z Route. The garden area was electrified and equipped with a water and sewage system, and the existing roads were also renovated.
In 1956, the Scientific Council was established at the Zoo, comprising university professors – this authority has been active to this day, consulting and providing opinions on breeding, didactic and scientific activities as well as assisting the management in the implementation of the Garden’s development plans. In 1959, the second entrance gate to the ZOO was opened from the side of the Gdański Bridge. In the meantime, the collection of animals kept constantly growing. In 1961, two new polar bears arrived, brought in as gifts by a scientific expedition from Spitsbergen.
Director Landowski managed to establish structures similar to those seen in other modern zoos, creating new enclosures, a complex for waterfowl, a giraffe’s house, utility facilities and a quarantine with a clinic. In autumn of 1970, a pair of giraffes from Kenya – Iskra and Płomyk – arrived in the ZOO. These were the first giraffes in post-war Poland.
On 2 October 1972, Dr Jan Landowski died after holding the position of the Director of the Zoological Garden for 21 years. The new director was Zbigniew Wolinski, the head of the Breeding and Research Department in the Warsaw Zoo. Unfortunately, the financial situation of the Garden was growing more and more difficult. The sanitary and hygienic condition of the animal enclosures kept deteriorating and renovations stalled due to a lack of funds. Under public pressure, the city authorities acknowledged that the situation in the ZOO should improve immediately.
Fortunately, there was no shortage of breeding successes. In 1975, the only polar bears raised in the capital to this day – Wars and Sawa – were born. Despite the crisis, the prestigious 34th Conference of the International Union of Directors of Zoological Gardens was held in Warsaw in 1979, with the participation of representatives of 42 zoos around the world. The Garden started seeing first changes for the better. The neglected enclosures of ungulates were renovated, along with many buildings.
In 1981, Director Zbigniew Wolinski decided to retire early. His successor, Dr Jan Maciej Rembiszewski, was selected in a competition. At the request of the new director, the Mayor of Warsaw, General M. Dębicki, convened the Presidential College at the Zoological Garden. An on-site visit made the city authorities aware of the abysmal state of the vast majority of buildings in the Garden. Some of them were on the brink of collapsing and allowing dangerous predators to escape.
The ZOO received the first investment funds in many years. The polar bear facility, which was in a tragic state by that point, was completely overhauled, while the aquarium was renovated and furnished with modern equipment. The construction of modern facilities with an animal kitchen, technical and food warehouses, workshops, garages, a greenhouse, a barn and appropriate technical facilities also started at that point. One of the most beautiful enclosures in Europe, a natural paddock for red pandas, was created, where the first red pandas were soon born.
Within less than a decade, 95% of ZOO facilities were overhauled, modernised or renovated. The Warsaw Zoological Garden became an active member of many international organisations, including the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) and the International Union of Directors of Zoological Gardens (IUDZG); it has also begun to participate in the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP). At the end of the 1980s, the director of the Zoological Garden established the Panda Foundation for the Development of Warsaw Zoological Garden together with his friends, which ushered the Zoo into the 1990s. The first sponsors – honorary animal carers – started to appear. The Panda Foundation supported new investments and renovations of existing facilities, bringing about a great period in the history of the Warsaw Zoo, which continues to this day.
1997 saw the completion of the construction of a very modern house for reptiles – the herpetarium. At the end of 1998, the opening of a birdhouse with the Bird Asylum – the Centre for Rehabilitation of Wild Birds, was brought to life, tasked with saving and rescuing the specimen of our native avifauna. In 1999, the Garden saw over 550,000 visitors. In the summer of 1999, the residents of Warsaw said goodbye to the last elephant in the capital – the 54-year-old elephant Sonia. She was the oldest Indian elephant in Europe.
The new century began with a great breeding success. In February 2000, cheetahs were born in the Warsaw Zoo. It was the first birth of cheetahs in Poland. Another litter (with 7 cubs!) was born three years later, also in February.
In March 2003, the Warsaw Zoological Garden celebrated its 75th anniversary. The event organised in the new elephant house, in cooperation with TVP, was graced by performances of famous artists and TV presenters. In May, the elephant house was officially opened to the public. This modern building, occupying an area of 6,000 m2, is still considered to be one of the most beautiful exhibition spaces of its kind in Europe. In July, Joni and Ninjo – two African elephants from Israel – moved into the new residence. Soon after, they received new names from their sponsors – Lotek and Leon. Finally, after waiting for several years, the residents of Warsaw could see the elephants again. A year later, in August 2004, three females – Zula, Buba and Fryderyka – joined the herd.
In autumn 2004, the first Indian rhinoceros in Poland – Gyan – was brought in to the Warsaw Zoo. After a few months Hugo took his place, and in 2006 Jacob joined the company. In 2008, Hugo was replaced by the young Shikari. Jacob and Shikari are so far the only pair of great Indian rhinoceroses in Poland.
In September 2004, the Panda Foundation founded the Lovers’ Club of Warsaw Zoological Garden, bringing together about 100 people. In June 2005, the Warsaw Zoo has organised the first Dreamnight – a special evening for terminally ill children and their families. This global campaign originated in 1996 in Rotterdam, and to this day, many zoological gardens around the world decided to join.
The beginning of 2006 saw the opening of a new facility – a pavilion for exotic invertebrates. In the summer, an extraordinary guest appeared in our Garden – Miss World 2005 – Unnur Birna Vilhjamsdottir. The most beautiful woman in the world became the godmother of two Warsaw zebras that were named after her – Unnur and Ubi.
In September 2007, the 24th Conference of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) was held in Warsaw. The Warsaw Zoo opened its gates to nearly 600 visitors from Europe, Africa and America.
In March 2008, the Warsaw Zoological Garden celebrated its 80th birthday. The official celebrations at the Kazimierz Palace were attended by a group of distinguished guests, including Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, Mayor of Warsaw.
In September 2008, we officially opened the new building – a modern pavilion for great apes. In addition to chimpanzees, it also became home to gorillas – monkeys that have never been to Warsaw before.
On 1 January 2009, there was a change in the position of director. Dr Jan Maciej Rembiszewski, who held this position for nearly 27 years, retired from his post and Dr Andrzej Kruszewicz – a well-known and renowned ornithologist, long-time employee of the ZOO, founder of the Bird Asylum – was appointed its new director. At the beginning of 2010, we managed to complete a large investment - a hippopotamus house with a marine aquarium. Visitors can admire Pelagia and Hugo – our hippos – in their new home, along with Oman cownose rays. In the years 2014-2015 the Aquarium was thoroughly renovated and overhauled.
Despite financial difficulties, the Warsaw Zoological Garden has been experiencing a real boom in the last several years. There is no shortage of breeding successes, new investments are being carried out, every year brings more and more scientific and entertainment events, all while the number of visitors is increasing with every season.
Jan Maciej Rembiszewski