The zoologist who saw the world through the eyes of animals


At Masoala Hall in Zurich Zoo, the animals are not on display to the public. Visitors must discover them for themselves. Keystone / Walter Bieri

Heini Hediger, who ran Zurich Zoo for a long time, is considered the father of zoology. He has always focused on the needs of the animals. Today, this concept is used by the best zoos in the world.

This content was published on July 15, 2021 – 2:00 pm

Beat Glogger, Higgs.ch

To discover Heini Hediger’s thoughts and work on site, we have an agreement with the former director of Zurich Zoo. Alex Rubel [directeur du parc zoologique de Zurich jusqu’en 2020, NDLR] welcomes us in the so-called free airspace, the first of its kind in Europe, which is Heini Hediger’s work.

Inside a twilight and the chirping of birds. Once our eyes have become accustomed to the darkness, we perceive a reproduction of tropical forest and countless birds jumping, digging the ground with their beaks, or flying freely. There are no bars or glass – and yet no bird escapes from the forest at full speed.

“They have no reason to, because they can satisfy all their needs in this open enclosure,” explains Alex Rübel. The former director of the zoo summarizes here Heini Hediger’s most important principle, pioneer in modern zoology.

An animal is not an exhibit, but a living being whose different needs go far beyond the simple fact of being fed. In the free flight space, the birds can retreat to protected areas and experience their social relations – from breeding to territorial battles – just like in nature.

But why do they not fly from the “forest” to the place reserved for the public? “Because we are in the dark, but the forest is illuminated. A diurnal bird therefore has no reason to fly into the unknown darkness, ”explains Alex Rübel.

See the world from the animal’s point of view: it is also by following this guideline that Heini Hediger had the African house built in 1965: no right angles or flat land, no doors or stairs conventional and no lattice.

Not only black rhinos have settled there, but also a flock of birds. Cattle herons and woodpeckers, which climb on the rhinos as they do in their homeland and chop the parasites on the skin of pachyderms.

Hediger was the first to place in the same enclosure animals that also live in symbiosis in the wild. Today, many consider certain well-known zoos, such as San Diego, to be models for respectful animal husbandry. But the idea came from Heini Hediger.

Heini Hediger was careful. Every time he picked up an animal at the zoo, he wore gloves (1965). Zoo Zurich

At the entrance to the next enclosure, Alex Rübel points to the small information panel. What the zoo audience today takes for granted was invented by Hediger before it became the standard for the best zoos in the world.

Along with the animal’s local name, the “Hediger Chart” also shows its scientific name and brief information about its distribution, lifestyle and habitat. “Before Hediger, zoos exhibited animals for entertainment without any concern for education or science,” notes Alex Rübel.

Born in Basel in 1908, Heini Hediger was interested in animals as living beings in their own right. He grew up near the Basel Zoo and as a child cared for countless reptiles, scorpions and fish – and even a fox for a few months, until his father banished the animal from home because her son had poor grades in school.

Heini Hediger already at that time expressed his intention to become zoo director to put his ideas into practice. He visited zoos several times a week and was convinced that zoos should not be menageries but cultural institutions.

“An animal is not an exhibition, but a living being with multiple needs.”

Heini Hediger

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Like all the zoologists of the time, however, Hediger first went on expeditions to the four corners of the world when he was a student. He captured animals and brought them back dead to make exhibits for the Natural History Museum.

But in 1937, when he was in Morocco with the aim of developing a method of killing snakes gently, he realized the obvious: “It was the last time,” he wrote in his biography. Since then, he has always tried to see the world through the eyes of animals.

While still a student, he made several research trips, most notably to the South Seas, and published articles on reptile fly reactions. He received his doctorate at the age of only 24, and soon after, the Natural History Museum in Basel elected him curator of the zoological department.

At the age of 30, he achieved his goal by becoming the administrator of Dählhölzli Zoo in Bern. Five years later, he took over the management of Basel Zoo. A fierce altercation with two influential Basel zoologists, Rudolf Geigy and Adolf Portmann, then led him to Zurich Zoo in 1954, where he served as director until 1973.

Heini Hediger not only improved the captivity of animals, he also researched their psychology as well as their sleep and published tirelessly. His book “Wild Animals in Captivity”, published in 1942, is considered the reference work of zoology.

Together with Konrad Lorenz and Bernhard Grzimek, he founded the magazine “Das Tier” (“The Beast”) in 1960. He made radio, then television and gave lectures at the University of Basel during no less than 84 semesters, which have met. successfully far beyond the circle of biologists.

“Hediger produced articles that were clear, scientifically accurate and of great entertainment value,” wrote René Honegger, former curator of Zurich Zoo, in his obituary. He describes the man who has long been his leader as “one of the inventors ofinfotainment modern”.

For a zoo, that vision translates into building facilities that focus on the needs of the animals, not the public. Former director Alex Rübel says he also agrees with this creed as we enter the Pantanal area of ​​the Zurich Zoo, which he opened in 2012.

Here, waterways wind through vegetation inspired by the Amazon region, but able to withstand the Swiss climate. Squirrel and capuchin monkeys frolic on islets. On the coast, we notice a wooden hut where a prisoner is dozing behind bars: on closer inspection, it is actually a mannequin. In front of the cabin, a Brazilian police car.

“Audiences love this setting,” says Alex Rübel. “But it’s not just for fun. It is an educational element that makes visitors aware of the problems of poaching and deforestation. ”

“This framework is an educational element that makes visitors aware of the problems of poaching and deforestation.”

Alex Rübel, former director of the Zurich Zoo

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Through this, but also with concrete projects on site, the zoo assumes its responsibility for the conservation of biodiversity, says Alex Rübel. It was a request from Heini Hediger.

Fences designed to be as close to nature as possible have one drawback: you see fewer animals. “It does not bother visitors,” according to Alex Rübel. In a survey conducted by Zurich Zoo, for example, only 10% of respondents complained about it. “This natural design gives the audience a more comfortable feeling than seeing the animals through bars.”

But wouldn’t many animals need even more space? After all, in the wild, a bear travels many miles every day. “The bear does not do it because it likes to roam,” explains Alex Rübel, but because the food it finds is very scattered. ” If an animal can support itself in its own way in a smaller space, it is just as comfortable in the zoo, according to the former director.

When he enters the Masoala Hall with its 30-meter-tall trees, dense shrubs, monkeys, fruit bats, birds, chameleons, turtles and insects, Alex Rübel comments: “It’s like what Hediger had imagined: a biotope under a bell jar . “

Hediger developed the idea of ​​covered ecosystems in the 1950s. He originally wanted to make the African House’s rhino pool visible from the water through glass.

We would have seen labeos (small fish) live in symbiosis with rhinos. But at that time there was no money for such a construction. “Hediger complained a lot about the lack of money,” says Alex Rübel. “He was an avant-garde zoologist, but not a good leader.”

Another dichotomy followed the pioneer Hediger throughout his life: the incompatibility of his Catholic faith with the scientific evidence for evolution. No matter how much he acknowledged the latter as a fact, he could never accept that something as wonderful as the peacock wheel could have been born out of trial and error.

“We all have to live with a remnant of the inexplicable,” comments Alex Rübel, who was also present at the end of Heini Hediger’s life, in a nursing home. “He suffered there,” he recalls. Hediger was a man of action, a motivated man.

Ernst Weilenmann succeeded Hediger as director of the Zurich Zoo for 18 years. From 1991 to 2020, Alex Rübel was responsible for Switzerland’s largest zoo. He knows that his predecessors left deep traces. But he too left his mark. He not only continued Hediger’s philosophy, but he also made the zoo profitable, something Hediger thought impossible.

In 2012, Alex Rübel received the Heini Hediger Prize “in recognition of his extraordinary commitment to science and education in the protection of nature, animals and the environment” – the highest honor in the world of zoos.


Elephants like to bathe. The swimming pool is part of the custom enclosure for those who opened in June 2014 at Zurich Zoo. The pachyderms can be observed underwater through a large window. Jean-Luc Grossmann / Zurich Zoo

Our trip ends with the new elephant enclosure. It covers an area of ​​about two football pitches, includes an artificial rock wall with a waterfall and a pond. Since the summer of 2014, a herd of elephants and two bulls have lived there.

“A social group as in nature,” comments Alex Rübel, before his gaze flees to the large pasture that lies beneath the zoo enclosure. He wants to create an African steppe there. “If we do something, we have to do it well,” he said. Following the example of what Heini Hediger did.

This article was originally published on August 26, 2018 on Higgs.chExternal link, the leading independent knowledge magazine in Switzerland. SWI swissinfo.ch occasionally publishes articles from Higgs.ch.

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