Dr. Andreas Knieriem © Zoo Berlin
Some kids dream of growing up and running their own zoo. Andreas Knieriem was not one of them. “I never aspired to become a zoo director”, insists the 52-year-old. And yet, Knieriem has become just that. Since 2014, he has headed up the oldest and one of the most popular zoos in Germany. In the past year alone, the Berlin Zoo had roughly 3.3 million guests, 70 percent of whom were tourists.
“My dream as a child was actually to become a veterinarian”, Knieriem remembers. “A veterinarian in a zoo”. So what went wrong? Nothing, in fact, Knieriem simply slipped into a different role. After studying for a degree in veterinary science, he worked initially as a veterinarian at the Duisburg Zoo. After that, he became head veterinarian at the Hannover Zoo, where he managed – among other things – the “stud book” for the Drill, a species of primate in the long-tailed monkey family. While in Hannover, he was instrumental in transforming the old zoological garden into a modern zoo. This eventually earned him a call to become the director of Munich’s Hellabrunn Animal Park, which was looking for someone to modernize their zoo. That was in 2009. Five years later, Knieriem received a job offer from the Berlin Zoo, which urgently needed new leadership and fresh new perspectives. The job involved not only the Berlin Zoo, but also the adjacent Aquarium and the Tierpark in Berlin-Friedrichsfelde.
The legacy Knieriem inherited was a difficult one. The Tierpark was in economic limbo and Knieriem’s predecessor had left behind hundreds of tones toxic construction waste on the site. The removal of this hazardous waste cost € 2 million alone. Plus, many of the animal enclosures were ailing, the infrastructure was outdated and there was a severe lack of technical management. When Knieriem talks about it, he shakes his head. But he also thrives on aggravation, he says, using it to drive him forward.
“Zoos have a magical quality”, notes Knieriem. The Berlin Zoo continues to have a special status, thanks to the polar bear ‘Knut’, Germany’s only Panda bears and many others. Knieriem knows how much potential his zoo holds, but he also knows the challenges. Indeed, in addition to all the magical stories, the zoo also has a great historical burden. Knieriem describes the zoo’s official monument status as hanging over the complex “like a cheese dome”. Indeed, “in Berlin, there are few locations as traditional as the zoo”. It’s true; many things haven’t changed for decades. However, while history is one thing, the lack of space is even more pressing. Due to its location in the middle of the city, the zoo can’t expand at will. And yet, as Knieriem notes, “A zoo needs to evolve. It is never finished”. At the moment, the zoo is being carefully renovated and refurbished. For example, the entrance at Hardenbergplatz was rebuilt and a 5,000 m² facility created for the Pandas – all during regular operating hours. When asked about the stress involved in such an undertaking, the director compares it to pulling a tiger’s teeth without anesthesia: “The idea of pulling a tiger’s teeth is not pleasant”, he says. An even bigger challenge is keeping the tiger’s original teeth healthy.
The zoo is indeed like a tiger. It should keep its original bite, that is, except for a few fillings here and there.