What is the purpose of a zoo? Is it a place offering its visitors to opportunity to view animals from far off lands? Is it a public space where people can gather, perhaps for events such as concerts of simply to meet for a few hours of relaxation? Is it a research institution where the animals collected can be studied under controlled conditions? Is it a center of wildlife conservation in which rare animals can be protected and breeding programs undertaken to increase their numbers? Is it a socio-political tool for the creation or reinforcement of a national identity? Is it a cause around which a society can rally in times of or following a national crisis?

Over its long and colorful history, the Berlin Zoo has been all these things. It has embodied the best and worst of governmental practice and human behavior, and been the site of magnificent as well as horrific activities – as well as some that embody such multi-faceted moral complexity that they pose significant and deeply challenging questions for us today even long after their cessation. Indeed, to tell its story well, an author would have to be a historian of exceptional skill, possessing both expansive knowledge and great perspicacity; and in his new Through the Lion Gate; A History of the Berlin Zoo, Gary Bruce proves quite clearly that he is just such an author.

Established in 1844 on the grounds of King Frederick William III of Prussia’s Pfaueninsel, The Isle of Peacocks, the Berlin Zoo quickly came to be the centerpiece of public life in the growing city. From its promise of interactions with exotic animals (well into the Twentieth Century, patrons were allowed to feed the animals with food they brought with them on their visit) to respite from the increasingly crowded city to its central magnificent restaurant that would for a time be the largest in all Berlin, the zoo was the place to see and be seen. As Paul Lindenberg wrote in 1888, “elegant society loves to rendezvous [at the zoo].” However as Professor Bruce so well documents, people-watching at the Berlin Zoo had a far more expansive meaning than today’s modern past-time of sitting in a park or cafe and observing passers-by; for in addition to its wide and expanding collection of animals, the Zoo also exhibited humans.

As atrocious as such a thing would be to us today, the Berlin Zoo’s “human zoo” was not unique to itself. From its beginnings in the late Nineteenth Century until its final major exhibition in 1931 of a group of women from what is now the African nation of Chad, such exhibitions of human beings in zoological parks, from Pacific Islanders to first nations peoples from the Pacific Northwest, to Africans both northern and southern, to Lapps from northern Finland, were not uncommon, nor were they quite as morally black and white as might be generally interpreted today.

To begin with, the people exhibited were not captured or held in captivity; they could, at least in the earlier years of such exhibitions, freely move about the city (with results that shall be taken up momentarily). All those who appeared, as documented in Through the Lion Gate, were contracted – and compensated – for specified periods of time, after which they were returned from whence they had come (if they hadn’t died from diseases to which they lacked acquired immunity, that is). Now, it can rightly be argued just how legitimate such contracts and compensation arrangements may have been. Can a person, regardless of the agreed-upon composition, legitimately agree to contract him or herself to be made the subject of a public spectacle? However in pondering this very point, it struck me that even today, the world’s most modern nations regularly engage in specified-duration contracting of humans specifically for the purpose of being stared at day and night for the purpose of public entertainment. Ever watch “Big Brother” on the television?

And indeed, not everyone in German – or the large European – society thought such exhibitions of humans were good ideas. While anthropologists took advantage of the presence of people from far-off lands to make observations and physical measurements, others objected on a variety of expected as well as unexpected grounds. Germany’s own Colonial Society, for example, condemned the exhibition of peoples from German colonies on the grounds that interactions with the Berliners had a corrupting influence on those exhibited. Indeed, following a hugely successful exhibition of a group of Nubian men at the Zoo, when it came time for them to return to Africa, many did not wish to go, having acquired girlfriends during their stay – and indeed, more than a few young women made visible public objections to their departure as well.

However much to what many might reasonably assume, Hitler and his National Socialists did not have any interest in exhibiting humans in zoos during their time in power. In fact, they were far more interested in prohibiting the peoples whom they considered inferior from visiting the zoos – or other public places – at all. Their interests were far more focused in creating not a “human zoo” but a “German zoo.”

Inexplicably devoted to the welfare and prevention of cruelty towards animals both wild and domestic, the Nazis sought to increase not only the representation of native wildlife in the Berlin as well as other German zoos in order to foster a sense of national natural identity among the citizenry, but also to strengthen the wild populations of such species – and in one particular case involving the aurochs, to “resurrect” and return an extinct species to the forests through which it had once roamed.

Of course, the entire history of the Berlin Zoo is far more than complex issues of expansive social significance. It is also the people and animals that made it the beloved and important social as well as scientific institution that it came to be. From Martin Hinrich Lichtenstein and Karl Hagenbeck, to the Hecks, to Dr Katharina Heinroth, the first female zoo director in Germany and in many very real ways the savior of the institution after the Second World War, the lives and accomplishments of those involved with the creation, development, and resurrection of the zoo are noteworthy indeed.

And lest we forget, such notables as Bobby the gorilla, Knut the polar bear, and the host of other Berlin Zoo inhabitants that have over the decades become the objects of civic as well as personal affection of both Berliners as well as visitors from all around the world must also be included in any comprehensive history of the institution. Say what you may about the legitimacy of keeping animals in captivity, the fact remains that they allow uncounted numbers of people to make meaningful connections with animals that they would otherwise never be able to see first-hand. This experience, perhaps more than all the well-planned conservation campaigns ever mounted, is what moves people to protect such creatures.

In his Through the Lion Gate, Professor Bruce has truly given the world a great gift – a history of one of the modern world’s great zoological institutions that thoroughly, intelligently, and insightfully presents the complexities of its existence in good times as well as bad in a manner that is both readable and narratively compelling. At times entertaining, at others profoundly challenging to one’s understanding of social morality both in the past as well as the present, this is indeed a book that should be read by anyone interested in natural history, European history, or who – to be perfectly honest – has ever been to a zoo and while there given even a passing thought as to what was, or how it was, being displayed, for as Professor Bruce’s book so clearly explains, most all of what we see in zoos today was either begun or refined in Berlin.

Title: Through the Lion Gate; A History of the Berlin Zoo

Author: Gary Bruce

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 320 pp., with 16 illustrations

ISBN: 9780190234980

Published: August 2017

In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.