Hidden Belgrade (52): Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Belgrade Zoo

Belgrade Zoo was opened in July 1936, by its modernising mayor and wealthy industrialist Vladmiri Ilić, who donated the animals. Nestled in Belgrade fortress, it brought a whiff of exoticism to the city and attracted its elite, as well as the Royal Family, then officially headed by teenage King Peter II.

It was part of the grand plans of beautification of Belgrade Fortress and Kalemegdan park, which started in 1920s with reconstruction of many walls and gates and construction of Ružica Chruch and Cvijeta Zuzorić pavilion and which, at one point, even foresaw construction of a gigantic Olympic complex for 1948 Olympics, diesgned by Werner March, of Berlin Olympic stadium fame, and met with major opposition.

Belgrade Zoo, however, grew nicely in the pre-WWII years, expanding to about 14 hectares and filling up with animals, thanks to donations of Ilić’s fellow industrialists. This all came to a halt in 1941, when Germany declared War on Yugoslavia, and bombed Belgrade on April 6th. To the surprise of many Belgraders, one of the targets of the first air-raid was the zoo, which meant that not only a lot its animals were killed, but also that a number of Belgraders who sought refuge in it also died. Some of the surviving animals also escaped to the city and needed to be shot. This tragic episode inspired Tea Obrecht’s wonderful novel, Tiger Wife as well as a mission in Commandos: Beyond the Call of Duty. Unfortunately, the zoo was once again targeted in an Allied air raid, causing further damage, but even that attack did not kill the Zoo’s most resilient resident, Muja the Alligator who moved to Belgrade in 1937 and is still alive.

After WWII, the Zoo was restored and it benefited from Yugoslavia’s ties with the Non-Aligned Movement. Among other gifts, the Zoo received rhinos from Zimbabwe and camels from Libya. However due to relatively cramped space and low experience, some of the animals died.

The Zoo started enjoying a resurgence after Vuk Bojović, a media-savvy sculptor, took over the helm in 1986. The Zoo became a media sensation in 1988 when a male chimpanzee, Sami, managed to escape it twice and have a walk around Central Belgrade, before being captured after long „negotiations“ with Bojović.

Bojović used the publicity to draw attention to the needs of financial needs of the zoo which led to the construction of the new gate, and several other buildings for animals in 1980s and 1990s. After Sami (who died in 1992) and Muja, the Zoo received new famous residents: Gabi the elephant  and Knindža the Bear.

It was in this period that I was its most frequent visitor, and dspite the relative poverty and cramped conditions for the animals, the zoo was a fascinating place. The most interesting of course were the animals, but also its location within the fortress and made it a magically romantic place, perfect to get lost in and to be chased by your grandparents as you attempt to feed a tiger or bear with Smoki.

Although I haven’t been a frequent visitor since late 90s, it seems that parts of the Zoo went through a much needed revamp. Although my awareness of the goings in the Zoo stopped after the salacious story of one very unlucky Belgrade Beer Fest attendee who died after falling into a bear cage in 2007, it seems that a lot has been done. There is now a petting zoo and even a penguin pool.

However despite the changes the feel (and the smell) remains unchanged from my childhood days: kids are still trying to get on top of the statue of Sami, their parents are still having a break by the fountain of Hercules wrestling the Nemean lion and you can still feel a sense of childlike wonder when you see a toucans, llamas and kangaroos in the heart of Belgrade.

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