Zoological gardens in capitals usually have wonderful but overcrowded animal collections exhibited on a relatively small land area. However, I have to say that Zoological Garden Bern (Tierpark Dählhölzli) does not belong to this line any more. Their new slogan „More space for fewer animals” was created in 2000, so nowadays a relatively low number of species – approximately 250 taxa – are on public display in the frame of an integrated concept.
Throughout Europe people can find many „classical” zoos exhibiting exotic animals in addition to some wildlife parks representing the given native fauna. Dählhölzli has found the balance between these aspects with its unusual yet very simple collection planning: the animals in the park belong to the fauna of the Palearctic ecozone, so all the exhibited species originated from Europe, Asia North of the Himalayas, North Africa and the Northern and Central parts of the Arabian Peninsula. This concept makes the animal park a real „Palearctic Zoo”. Only one part of the zoo makes an exception, the Vivarium, where many exotic species are exhibited, like different species of small mammals, lizards and fish. The display of the African giant termites (Macrotermes jeanneli) is worth mentioning above all, since this was the first successful attempt at establishing a termite mound in a natural way in captivity.
The institution opened its gates in 1937, its 15,5 hectares of land area is located between the Aare River and Dählhölzli Forest. The whole area can be divided into three parts: the petting zoo, the Vivarium and the Eurasian/Palearctic outdoor exhibitions. The latter one is also built up from three sections: the central zone with the most species of animals, the Bison Forest and the riverside exhibits.
It is worth mentioning that most areas of the zoo can be explored free of charge. Admission is charged for the Vivarium and the adjoining outdoor area only.
Right next to the building of the Vivarium visitors can explore the exhibitions of sea life. The main attraction here is a big group of Harbour seals (Phoca vitulina vitulina) where animals have the opportunity to dive in the biggest pool built for the species in Europe since 2003. Their „miniature sea” contains 2000 m³ of water. The zoo is a regular breeder of the species. The neighbouring area is something unique: a walk-through seabird aviary was opened in 2009, its key species being the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica).
These birds are colonial nesters, excavating burrows on grassy clifftops and the artificial rockwork in the aviary is a masterful replica of their natural habitat. These rarely exhibited seabirds also have an enormous pool with a magnificent underwater view when the animals dive during their feeding session. Visitors can see big swarms of common barbels (Barbus barbus) and chubs (Squalius cephalus) here as well, and some additional seabird species which are also true rarities, like the Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea) and the Eurasian golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria).
Leaving the walk-through aviary, visitors can observe some charismatic species of the tundra biome. White-faced muskoxen (Ovibos moschatus wardi), Finnish forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus) and Eurasian elks (Alces alces alces) have their own spacious enclosures, and one smaller species like the Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) represents the carnivores. Next to the elks a special zone was built with outdoor reptile exhibits. The biggest outdoor terrarium is inhabited by marginated tortoises (Testudo marginata), next to them two "mixes-species exhibits" were built for different species of snakes: the first one is home to European grass snakes (Natrix natrix) and Aesculapian snakes (Zamenis longissimus), the second one is cohabited by European adders (Vipera berus) and asp vipers (Vipera aspis). Other venomous snakes, like Ottoman vipers (Montivipera xanthina) also have spacious outdoor exhibits. This latter terrarium fades into the artificial rock of the Persian leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor) enclosure, so here visitors enter the area of the large carnivores. Before this, a row of small aviaries can be found and with a little luck visitors can have a glimpse at a rarely exhibited bird species, the Hazel grouse (Tetrastes bonasia), that lives in dense, damp, mixed coniferous woodlands. Walking away from the birds we can reach the newest area of the zoo, where a rare subspecies of the brown bear, Ussuri brown bears (Ursus arctos lasiotus) are on public display. One of the main characteristics of the institution is – in accordance with the collection plan – that only a few animal houses are visible. The new and main visitor centre next to the bear exhibit also properly assimilates to the natural forest environment without pretence. Inside the building people can learn about the behaviour of the bears in an interactive way, but alongside the several information boards there is a splendid underwater view when bears are swimming or bathing. Brown trouts (Salmo trutta fario) have also been introduced to the pool to give the bears motivation to show their "hunting behaviour". The large carnivores have several fair-sized enclosures with natural forest vegetation. It is worth mentioning that a few years ago brown bears shared their enclosure with wolverines (Gulo gulo).
One of the most reputable exhibits of the animal park is the so-called Bison Forest. It covers more than five hectares and the natural woodland area is functioning as a mixed-species exhibit with European bisons (Bison bonasus) and Central European red deer (Cervus elaphus hippelaphus). An elevated pathway helps the easier observation of the animals.
The riverside exhibition area along the Aare is undoubtedly impressive, where European otters (Lutra lutra) and Eurasian beavers (Casor fiber) live in their semi-natural captive habitats. Additional species like Alpine chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) and Alpine ibex (Capra ibex) as well as Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) and several waterfowl species are also exhibited here.