The director and general manager of the Schönbrunn Zoo, Dagmar Schratter, spoke to us about activism, animal husbandry, why some frogs wave and the tricks of impregnating an elephant
Arriving at the oldest existing zoo in the world, our hosts guided us past the excited chatter of a school class, then a couple holding hands beside the giraffe enclosure and a family inspecting the map in search of meerkats. It’s hard to imagine coming to work here every day. Besides the wonder that makes up the mood at any zoo, the Tiergarten Schönbrunn is housed within one of the most beautiful palace gardens in Europe, marrying the strict rules of historical preservation with much needed improvements to the living conditions of the many creatures kept there.
It wasn’t always a smooth ride: “At the end of the 1980s, the zoo was on the verge of being closed down,” Dagmar Schratter told me – including protests by animal rights activists chanting, “close the animal concentration camp.” “There were lots of voices who saw no way to consolidate historical preservation laws (Denkmalschutz) and species-appropriate care-taking.” Because it was a federal institution, management struggled with the bureaucracy of requesting and implementing changes in a timely fashion. So in 1992, the zoo was privatized, with the transition financed out of federal coffers.
When Schrattner began work at the zoo, it was going through radical changes. “Not a stone was left standing,” she said. Over the decades, the zoo had lost touch with contemporary animal husbandry, and they now sought out “best practice” models from around the world.
Schratter has worked at the zoo for 25 years and been its director for the past 11. She began as a zoological curator – in charge of one section, its caretakers, breeding programs and research projects, as well as communication with other zoos. The monkey enclosures were the first to be overhauled, thanks to support from Four Paws (Vier Pfoten), a private fund for animal protection, and private sponsors. For their lone female elephant, they brought in companions from the Munich zoo. “And they didn’t even have a tree to rub up against. Things like that cost nothing.” Change was a long process, with every space getting renovated and optimized. Last year, the giraffe enclosure– the last of the historical areas – was completed.
“There will always be activists who feel that animals should not be kept, saying the animals aren’t free. But animals aren’t free in nature either,” she noted. “They have rivers, climate constraints, resource constraints.” Schratter believes people have the right to keep animals. “We are not above nature, we are a part of it … That we use animals is part of our nature.”
Schratter is herself an animal activist: She is president of the nonprofit Tierschutz macht Schule (Animal protection sets an example) and as a biologist, promotes research and animal protection efforts, both at the zoo and in the animals’ habitats around the world.
In 2010, the zoo began the first-ever breeding of the Northern River Terrapin (Batagur Schildkröte), a species of river turtle, which was brought to the brink of extinction by the hunting of both the animals and their eggs. “At the time, there were only 20 left in the entire world,” she said. They partnered with an expert from Graz and locals in Bangladesh to create a sanctuary near the capital. Today, it’s home to about 180 specimens.
The Borneo splash frog was another success story. Native to loud surroundings like waterfalls, “they can’t communicate as frogs normally do, by croaking,” she said. “Instead, evolution has given them white hind feet, which they raise to wave at fellow splash frogs.” This is why, in German, they are called Winkerfrösche, “waving frogs.” Through groundbreaking research, they discovered that the frogs are, in fact, able to croak and that the waving is hormonally driven. The zoo also initiated the first artificial insemination of an elephant from a frozen sperm sample [see “The Animal Whisperers,” p34]. Pandas at Schönbrunn have successfully reproduced without artificial insemination or additional coaxing.
Today, the zoo’s inhabitants continue to attract crowds, even in winter. “The most popular are the big animals, the elephants, giraffes, furry animals, big cats, tigers…” Long the most popular, the elephants have now been overtaken by the meerkats. “I think it’s because there’s always something going on, they each have roles in their social groups, just the way we do.” In the animal kingdom, we often see a mirror of ourselves.
Where to find Dagmar Schratter this Summer
Schratter frequents this somewhat “alternative” establishment, which she says has the best breakfast. “I love the avocado toast. Or if you go for lunch, try the curry.
Jausen Station Landtmann
On her way home Schratter walks through Schönbrunn’s Palace Park and likes to finish the day with a visit to the Café Landtmann’s Jausen Station. While that technically means “snack station,” it offers much more, like cold cuts and Austrian classics, all regionally sourced and organic. “It’s smack in the middle of the park and you can linger there until the sun goes down.”
Schratter spends her weekends at her house in Steyr in Upper Austria. But when she’s in town she enjoys long walks through the inner city. “When you walk through the district, you always discover something new. The beautiful buildings, but also some tiny museum that you never knew existed.” She says she’s not really a city person, but on her walks she enjoys the laid-back business and ends up in a nice Schanigarten, “like the one at Motto am Fluss on the Danube canal.”
As a lover of the country lifestyle, Schratter said her list would not be complete without the supplanted Tirolerhof, situated in the Schönbrunn Gardens. It was dismantled in Tyrol and reconstructed piece by piece on the zoo grounds. Besides offering a traditional Tyrolean menu, the building also houses endangered domestic animal breeds, displaying to visitors how to properly treat and take care of them.