Andreas Stanita / translated by M. HathawayJulian Beekmann

Where mythical creatures live

A zoological garden in the middle of town, right next to a fortress – such a place you will only find in Landau, in the Palatinate area. On 4.5 hectares of land 110 species of animals enjoy the region’s gentle climate and zoo director Jens-Ove Heckel’s devoted work. 

 

Are those really camels grazing over there in the city centre? Indeed! Though the fact that they have only one hump is a clear indicator that these are, in fact, dromedaries. Every child in Landau is aware of such facts by now, as they are taught in the zoo school.

Unusual neighbors: the dromedaries.

As Dr. Heckel steps outside of a small administrative building the sun illuminates his face. The winter was long – even here in the southern Palatinate region. Finally though, in April, the zoo is lush and green and the animals are spending more time in the outdoor enclosures. Appreciatively they soak up the warm sun rays and readily allow the mostly young visitors to admire them. “This really is an unusual place to work, and I have been doing the job for over 18 years now. My wife and I were planning on moving to the Philippines before I started here and it was at the last minute, that the confirmation for the position of Landau zoo director reached me. We were almost on the plane to the Philippines, so to say. I never regretted the decision. The friendly nature of the people of the Palatinate makes it easy to feel at home here.”

Director of the zoo: Dr. Jens-Ove Heckel.

When speaking with Dr. Jens Ove Heckel one quickly hears that he himself is something of a rare species in the region – as he speaks dialect-free German. “I was born in Lower Saxony, but spent my childhood abroad, amongst other countries also in Afghanistan, as my father was involved in development aid. There was a small veterinary station there and people would bring in many sick animals from the surrounding areas. I was regularly an interested onlooker. At home we soon also had a small zoo, as we were brought many wild animals to take care of. We had monkeys, a young fox, several cranes and some other birds. To witness the way these animals were cared for and to see them recover was a very formative experience for me. I decided early on that I wanted to become a veterinarian as well.”

The mountain zebra Hartmann.

This career choice had far-reaching consequences, as in Germany one must reach a general qualification for university entrance – the Abitur – by successfully graduating from secondary school in order to take up a vet study course. “After 6th form, I visited a kind of boarding school. This meant I would only see my parents over the holidays. On the other hand, while my classmates might have visited the Black Forest or maybe Italy, I had the chance to visit places such as Yemen, Niger, Somalia, Uganda or the Cape Verde Islands. These travels are surely part of the reason that I am interested in exotic rather than native animals.”

When visiting the Landau Zoo there can be certain risks involved. One of the spacious monkey-enclosures offers the animals a specially designed bridge to enter the enclosure. Visitors should be quick to pass underneath as the sly primates enjoy using their ‘Arc de Triomphe’ as a latrine, and seem to enjoy the attention they attract. The stars of the zoo are the Sibirian tigers, that live in a 7,000 square meter outdoor enclosure. But also the South American fur seals or the Humboldt Penguins are very popular. “All animals here are very close to my heart. As a veterinarian I am specifically interested in diseases that can potentially be transmitted between humans and animals. After graduating from university I worked as an assistant veterinarian in the Wilhelma Zoo in Stuttgart for three and a half years. During this time I did my doctorate on such a subject. It was a very exciting and instructive time and I was lucky to be able to work closely together with Dr. Wolfram Rietschel, who was the chief of the zoo’s veterinary unit at the time. The man is a true expert and I am still glad to be able to call him my teacher up to this day.”

“All animals here are very close to my heart.”

It is thanks to Dr. Heckel’s passion for primates, that the Landau Zoo can make an important contribution to maintaining the population of the white-naped mangabey. These monkeys belong to the family of guenons and are one of the most critically endangered species of primates on earth. By now the zoo’s stock has very well stabilized, in part due to the European conservation breeding programme, but also thanks to the active love life of Charles, a well built breeding stud, who seems to feel very comfortable here in the Palatinate.

Feeling well in the Palatinate: White-naped mangabey.

“For a few years now I have been an honorary chairman of the Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations (ZGAP). The association supports the preservation of less known, but highly endangered species of animals. Not all animals are lucky enough to look cute, or to be sold as a stuffed version promoting their fight to survive. It was ZGAP that discovered the last live specimens of the Philippine Spotted Deer, which at the time was officially extinct. Meanwhile measures to preserve the species are being taken in the Philippines, but we are also coordinating these measures with zoos and from Landau as well.“

Even cranes find it cozy in the zoo.

The passion and lifeblood Dr. Heckel invests into his little zoo is apparent all around. Under the rubric ‘small zoos’, British zoo expert Anthony Sheridan and others have repeatedly awarded Landau with top scores. This former economist’s verdicts are eagerly and fearfully awaited by even the largest European zoos and their directors. But for Dr. Heckel, the expert’s view is just as important as the positive feedback he receives from visitors of all ages, from the region and Landau itself.

The Landau Zoo offers a wide range of educational programmes. Starting with kindergartens, the zoo offers fitting programs for primary schools, secondary schools and the local university. Future educational scientists teach as zoo educators. The education programme at the interface between educational theory and environmental science has been honoured by the UNESCO six times already. But for the director and his team the nicest form of recognition are the 15,000 children, young people and adults that make use of the educational offers every year.

Dr. Jens-Ove Heckel is a species and animal protectionist, a marketing director, an event manager and a landscape designer – all in one person. And in the evenings, when things in the Landau enclosure quieten down, Dr. Heckel will sometimes enjoy a glass of south Palatinate wine, which is of course also available as a zoo edition in the gift shop. Maybe though Mr. director might be off to visit a meeting of the local history club ‘Elwetrittche Verein Landau e.V.’, or he might be giving a lecture elsewhere regarding this super rare species, that has its own enclosure in the Landau Zoo. Ensuring the continued existence of this mythical bird-like creature from the Palatinate is just as important to Dr. Heckel, as is that of the white-naped mangabey or the Philippine Spotted Deer. And one rule does definitely apply in the Palatinate as well: one can only love, what one understands – and only what we love, we shall conserve and nurture.


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